Inside interstellar nebulae
James Webb telescope discovers coldest ice ever recorded in space
The James Webb space telescope has discovered the coldest ice ever measured deep inside an interstellar nebula. With this discovery, the international research team with Swiss participation wants to get one step closer to the origin of life.
This James Webb Space Telescope image shows the central region of the dark Chameleon I molecular cloud. Highlights from the numerous background stars can be seen as orange dots behind the cloud.
At minus 263 degrees Celsius, the ice was only around ten degrees above absolute zero, according to a study published in the journal Nature Astronomy on Monday. This discovery is of great scientific importance because ice in space played a central role in the formation of the universe.
Space ice forms long before planets themselves. It forms deep within interstellar nebulae – clouds of molecular gas and dust that eventually collide to form planets. It is cold enough in these clouds that frost can form on dust grains.
Using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), researchers have now discovered ice deeper in such a molecular cloud than ever before. In the study, the team focused on the Chameleon I molecular cloud, more than 500 light-years from Earth, where dozens of young stars are currently forming. They are near the center, in a particularly cold, dense region that is difficult to study.
“These measurements were only possible with Webb’s high-precision infrared spectrographs, which can precisely detect and break down radiation at these wavelengths,” said study co-author Maria Drozdovskaya from the University of Bern in a statement from the university on Monday. Switzerland was also involved in the development of these instruments.
The researchers have already lured initial insights into the space ice. They measured the presence of various chemical elements in the ice. carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur. “These elements are important components of prebiotic molecules such as simple amino acids – and thus, so to speak, ingredients of life,” says Drozdovskaya.
The team found fewer of these elements than they expected compared to the density of the cloud. This indicates that these elements are not exclusively found in the icy components of molecular clouds, but could also be lurking elsewhere.