Astronomers have detected the oldest known examples of complex organic molecules in the universe, reports a new study.
These chemicals, just like those found in smoke and soot on Earth, reside early galaxy which was formed when the universe she was about 10 percent of her current age, according to the study.
Carbon-based molecules, technically known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, are found in oil and coal deposits Earthas well as in the smog.
“The molecules we found are not simple things like water or carbon dioxide,” study lead author Justin Spilker, an astronomer at Texas A&M University in College Station, told Space.com. “We’re talking about large, floppy molecules with dozens or hundreds of atoms inside them.”
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These complex organic molecules are common in space, where they are often bound to tiny specks of dust. Astronomers study them because they can help reveal key details of activity within galaxies, for example they help influence the rate at which interstellar gas cools. However, detecting these molecules in very distant galaxies that formed when the universe was relatively young has been challenging, because telescopes they were limited in their sensitivity and the number of wavelengths of light they monitored.
Now, using NASA’s extraordinarily powerful new one James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), Spilker and his colleagues detected these molecules in a galaxy known as SPT0418-47 more than 12 billion light-years from Earth.
“It’s remarkable that the universe can create very large and complex molecules very quickly after the big BangSpilker said.
Given SPT0418-47’s extreme distance, the light detected by astronomers began its journey less than 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang. (The universe is currently about 13.8 billion years old.)
“This pushes back the old record for detections like this one by about a billion years more,” Spilker said.
The discovery was made with the help of a curvature in the fabric of spacetime known as gravitational lensing. Albert Einstein he found that mass distorts space-time, much like a bowling ball might stretch a sheet of rubber it was resting on. The greater the mass of an object, the more space-time curves around the object, and therefore the stronger the gravitational pull of the object. The way gravity works means it can bend light like a lensthus a powerful gravitational field, such as that produced by a huge cluster of galaxies, can act like a giant magnifying glass.
Astronomers Detected Previous Record Holder for Oldest Complex Organic Molecules Using More Than a Full Day of NASA Observations Spitzer Space TelescopeSpilker said. By comparison, using JWST, “we only stared at this galaxy for a total of an hour,” he said. “Webb really makes finding organic molecules too easy.”
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Also, while previous efforts to detect complex organic molecules in ancient galaxies could only tell whether or not chemicals were present, “Webb’s resolution allows us to see the actual detail of where molecules are located within a galaxy.” instead of just whether or not they’re there at all,” Spilker said. In SPT0418-47, the presence of these molecules is not uniform across the galaxy, why remains to be explained.
All in all, these new findings suggest that “it’s possible for galaxies to form in overdrive,” Spilker said. “The galaxy we studied is already just as massive, and its stars have formed as much carbon and oxygen as ours Milky Way, even if it is only a tenth of the age. It’s like a third grader who’s already had an entire career: He went to college, did a career-worthy job, and then retired at age eight. Webb’s new results imply that it’s actually not very difficult for galaxies to make really complex molecules out of all this rich chemistry going on in space.”
Furthermore, scientists had previously thought that these complex organic molecules were linked to star formation. However, the new data revealed that this may not always turn out to be true: Spilker and his colleagues found many regions with these molecules but no star formation, and others with new stars forming but none of these molecules, he said.
“Finding these large, complex molecules in galaxies when the universe was very young is one of those things many astronomers hoped and expected Webb to do, and I hope the lessons we learned from this first attempt can help us all as we go forward,” Spilker said. “I’m eager to push on to even more distant and younger galaxies: can we eventually find one that hasn’t had enough time for such large molecules to form? I’d also like to understand much better why these molecules exist in some regions of galaxies but not others.” What was special about regions with molecules that allowed for the rapid formation of large molecules?”
Spilker warned that the JWST mid-infrared (MIRI) instrument used to make the new discoveries “appears to have declining performance Right now. NASA has a team of excellent engineers who are currently investigating the cause of the problem. But if performance continues to decline, it could make studies like this impossible after next year.”
The detailed scientists their discoveries online today (June 5) in the journal Nature.
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