J.Spilker/S. Doyle/NASA/ESA/CSA

Astronomers using the Webb Telescope have discovered complex organic molecules in a galaxy located more than 12 billion light-years away. The galaxy lines up almost perfectly with a second galaxy 3 billion light-years from Earth. Webb captured the foreground galaxy in blue, while the more distant background galaxy is in red. Molecules appear in orange.

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Astronomers have detected the most distant known organic molecules in the universe using the James Webb Space Telescope. It’s the first time Webb has detected complex molecules in the distant universe.

The complex molecules were found in a galaxy known as SPT0418-47, located more than 12 billion light-years away.

The discovery sheds light on the chemical interactions that occurred within the universe’s first galaxies and how they relate to star formation.

On Earth, the molecules, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, are found in smoke, soot, smog, engine exhaust and forest fires.

The basis of organic molecules is carbon, considered one of the building blocks of life because it is the key element of amino acids, which form proteins.

A study detailing the findings was published Monday in the journal Nature.

Light from the dusty galaxy began traveling across the cosmos when the universe was less than 1.5 billion years old, just 10% of its current age of 13.8 billion years. The galaxy was first sighted in 2013 by the National Science Foundation’s South Pole Telescope. Other observatories, such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile, have observed it since.

But the infrared capabilities of the Webb telescope, which can see light invisible to the human eye and peer through cosmic dust, has been able to capture new details about the galaxy. And the space observatory has received a helping hand from a phenomenon called gravitational lensing.

S.Doyle/J. spiller

The galaxy observed by the Webb telescope shows an Einstein ring caused by a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing, which occurs when two galaxies are almost perfectly aligned from our perspective on Earth.

This magnification occurs when two galaxies are nearly perfectly aligned from Earth’s perspective, and light from the background galaxy is warped and magnified by the foreground galaxy into a ring shape, known as an Einstein ring, said the co-author of the study. study Joaquin Vieira, a professor of astronomy and physics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, in a statement.

Gravitational lensing was originally envisioned in Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.

By combining Webb’s extraordinary abilities with a natural cosmic magnifier, we were able to see even more detail than we otherwise would have been able to, he said. study lead author Justin Spilker, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Texas A&M University, in a statement.

That level of magnification is actually what got us interested in looking at this galaxy with Webb in the first place, because it really allows us to see all the rich detail of what constitutes a galaxy in the early universe that we never could otherwise. said Spilker, who is also a fellow at Texas A&Ms George P. and the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy.

Astronomers spotted the signature of organic molecules during a careful analysis of Webbs’ data. Molecules are common in space.

Here on Earth, they are part of the carcinogenic hydrocarbon emissions that contribute to the planet’s air pollution.

Previously, astronomers thought polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons were a sign of star formation because they observed the large molecules near bright young stars. But Webbs’ data revealed that the presence of these molecules may not have been an indicator of star birth in the early days of the universe.

Thanks to Webb’s high-definition images, we found many regions with smoke but no star formation, and others with new stars forming but no smoke, Spilker said.

The unexpected discovery is helping astronomers piece together answers to some of the lingering questions about the beginning of the universe.

Discoveries like this are exactly what Webb was built to do: to understand the early stages of the universe in new and exciting ways, study co-author Kedar Phadke, an astronomy doctoral student at the University of the United States, said in a statement. Illinois Urbana-Champaign. It’s amazing that we can identify molecules billions of light-years away that were familiar to us here on Earth, even if they show up in ways we don’t like, like smog and smoke. It’s also a powerful affirmation about Webb’s extraordinary abilities that we have never had before.

The researchers look forward to making more use of Webbs’ capabilities in the future as they search for even more distant galaxies.

Now that we’ve shown this is possible for the first time, we can’t wait to try to figure out if it’s really true that where there’s smoke, there’s fire, Spilker said. Perhaps we will even be able to find galaxies so young that complex molecules like these have not yet had time to form in the vacuum of space, so the galaxies are all fire and no smoke. The only way to know for sure is to look at more galaxies, hopefully even more distant than this one.

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