The James Webb Space Telescope has found the building blocks of life in the coldest region of space to be observed by astronomers. The discovery is the first in a series of spectral snapshots that scientists hope will show how these icy regions form and evolve into comets that could bring these molecules to other planets.
“This will tell us which mixture of ices — and therefore which elements — can eventually be delivered to the surfaces of terrestrial exoplanets or incorporated into the atmospheres of giant gas or ice planets,” said Melissa McClure, an astronomer at Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands and principal investigator of the observing program, in a statement.
The research forms part of the Ice Age project, one of Webb’s 13 Early Release Science programs. An international team of astronomers used Webb to search the Chamaeleon I molecular cloud, which is roughly 630 light years from Earth and in the process of forming dozens of young stars.
The researchers found simple ices like water, as well as frozen forms of a wide range of molecules including carbonyl sulfide, ammonia, methane and methanol. These compounds include carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen or sulfur (CHONS), which are key elements for a habitable planet.
The presence of carbonyl sulfide allowed researchers to estimate how much sulfur is embedded in icy pre-stellar dust grains. The amount measured is more than previous observations; it is less than the total amount expected to be present in the cloud based on its density. This was true for other CHONS.
A challenge for astronomers is understanding where these elements are hiding in other similar frozen regions of space. The amount of these elements in each type of material determines how much of these elements end up in exoplanet atmospheres and interiors.
“The fact that we haven’t seen all of the CHONS that we expect may indicate that they are locked up in more rocky or sooty materials that we cannot measure,” said McClure. “This could allow a greater diversity in the bulk composition of terrestrial planets.”
The survey is the most comprehensive and detailed census to date for the ingredients of future stars and planets. According to Will Rocha, an astronomer at Leiden Observatory, the presence of complex organic molecules suggests stars and planetary systems developing in this cloud will inherit molecules in an advanced chemical state.
“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,” he said in a statement.