JWST uncovers building blocks of life in icy molecular clouds

Although we all have differences, there’s one commonality that has prevailed for all of humanity: we are all floating on a rock, flying through outer space at over a million miles an hour.

Thanks to the rapid advancement of technology in the past century, we can observe more of the Universe than ever before.

The scale and sheer size of the Universe make it impossible to truly learn everything, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Here’s what’s happening in space this week.


NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has unveiled yet another exciting discovery – the building blocks of life frozen deep within a cosmic cloud.

An international team of astronomers used the telescope to analyze the composition of a cold, dark molecular cloud 630 light years from Earth. Within the hazy cloud, they found an array of organic molecules in frozen form. Among them were carbonyl sulfide, ammonia, methane, and methanol.

Photo credit NASA

Leiden Observatory astronomer Melissa McClure is the lead author of the paper published in Nature Astronomy that revealed this discovery.

“These observations open a new window on the formation pathways for the simple and complex molecules that are needed to make the building blocks of life,” she said.

A molecular cloud is a dense region of freezing cold gas and dust where new stars and planets are formed, according to NASA. Webb’s new discoveries prove that complex molecules form in molecular clouds before stars form. This is significant as it could give us hints as to where and how life forms beyond our solar system.

“This could mean that the presence of precursors to prebiotic molecules in planetary systems is a common result of star formation, rather than a unique feature of our own solar system,” said Leiden Observatory astronomer Will Rocha.

According to NASA’s press release, the team of astronomers was able to analyze the cloud’s composition through a process in which they examined how light from behind the cloud was absorbed by molecules within the cloud. This process leaves behind ‘absorption lines’ that are only visible thanks to Webb’s infrared capabilities.

Webb project scientist Klaus Pontoppidan also contributed to the study.

“We simply couldn’t have observed these ices without Webb,” he said.

“The ices show up as dips against a continuum of background starlight. In regions that are this cold and dense, much of the light from the background star is blocked, and Webb’s exquisite sensitivity was necessary to detect the starlight and therefore identify the ices in the molecular cloud.”


Photo credit KRLD

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