James Webb Spots the Building Blocks of Life in a Dark Molecular Cloud

James Webb Photo of a Dark Molecular Cloud

The James Webb Space Telescope has been used to identify a wide range of frozen gasses in a molecular cloud — namely carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur molecules — which are the building blocks of habitable worlds.

NASA and the ESA explain that these elements are important ingredients in both the atmosphere of habitable planets as well as are the basis of sugars, alcohols, and simple amino acids. In short, not only is the James Webb photo beautiful, but researchers have been able to use it to identify the earliest stages of planetary formation.

The photo above, captured by the James Webb Space Telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), features the central region of the Chamaeleon I dark molecular cloud which resides 630 light years away.

“The cold, wispy cloud material (blue, center) is illuminated in the infrared by the glow of the young, outflowing protostar Ced 110 IRS 4 (orange, upper left). The light from numerous background stars, seen as orange dots behind the cloud, can be used to detect ices in the cloud, which absorb the starlight passing through them,” the Webb team explains.

“Our results provide insights into the initial, dark chemistry stage of the formation of ice on the interstellar dust grains that will grow into the centimeter-sized pebbles from which planets form in disks,” Melissa McClure, an astronomer at Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, who is the principal investigator of the observing program and lead author of the paper describing this result, says.

“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.”

The team was also able to identify more complex molecules which they say proves for the first time that complex molecules form in the icy depths of molecular clouds before stars are formed.

“Our identification of complex organic molecules, like methanol and potentially ethanol, also suggests that the many star and planetary systems developing in this particular cloud will inherit molecules in a fairly advanced chemical state,” Will Rocha, an astronomer at Leiden Observatory who contributed to this discovery, explains.

“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.”

“We simply couldn’t have observed these ices without Webb,” Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, who was involved in this research, adds.

“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.”

This research is part of the Ice Age Project, which is tracing the building blocks of life through the James Webb Space telescope.

The astronomers explain the importance of the science in greater detail on the Webb Space Telescope website.

Image credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and M. Zamani (ESA/Webb); Science: F. Sun (Steward Observatory), Z. Smith (Open University), and the Ice Age ERS Team.