The “darkest view” of interstellar ices refers to the observation of the most complex and carbon-rich ice features ever seen in space. This was achieved using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile, which allows for high-resolution imaging of the dust and gas in star-forming regions. The study revealed a variety of ice features, including solid methanol, solid ethanol, and large organic molecules that are thought to be precursors to more complex organic compounds. This research provides new insights into the chemical processes that lead to the formation of organic compounds in space, and could help to explain the origins of life on Earth.
Astronomers used data from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to create the darkest image of a dense interstellar cloud ever seen. These observations have revealed the composition of a virtual treasure trove of ices from the early universe, providing new insights into the chemical processes of one of the universe’s coldest, darkest places, as well as the origins of the molecules that comprise planetary atmospheres.
An international team led by Southwest Research Institute, Leiden University, and NASA used observations from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to obtain the darkest view of a dense interstellar cloud ever obtained. These observations have revealed the composition of a virtual treasure chest of ices from the early universe, providing new insights into the chemical processes of one of the coldest, darkest places in the universe as well as the origins of the molecules that make up planetary atmospheres.
These observations provide new insights into chemical processes in one of the universe’s coldest, darkest places to better understand the molecular origins of protoplanetary disks, planetary atmospheres, and other Solar System objects.Dr. Danna Qasim
“The JWST enabled us to study ices that exist on dust grains within the darkest regions of interstellar molecular clouds,” said SwRI Research Scientist Dr. Danna Qasim, co-author of the study published in Nature Astronomy. “Because the clouds are so dense, these ices have been mostly shielded from the harsh radiation of nearby stars, and they are quite pristine. These are the first ices to form and contain biogenic elements that are essential for life.”
NASA’s JWST has a 6.5-meter-wide mirror that provides remarkable spatial resolution and sensitivity while being optimized for infrared light. As a result, for the first time, the telescope was able to image the universe’s densest, darkest clouds.
“These observations provide new insights into chemical processes in one of the universe’s coldest, darkest places to better understand the molecular origins of protoplanetary disks, planetary atmospheres, and other Solar System objects,” Qasim said.
The majority of interstellar ices contain trace amounts of oxygen and sulfur. Qasim and her colleagues are investigating the lack of sulfur in interstellar ices.
“The ices we observed contained only 1% of the sulfur we expected. 99% of that sulfur is locked up somewhere else, and we need to figure out where it is in order to understand how sulfur will eventually be incorporated into planets that could support life” Qasim elaborated.
According to the study, sulfur may be locked in reactive minerals such as iron sulfide, which may react with ices to form the sulfur-bearing ices observed.
“Iron sulfide is a highly reactive mineral that has been discovered in the accretion disks of young stars and in comet samples. In addition, it is the most common sulfide mineral in lunar rocks “Qasim stated. “If sulfur is locked up in these minerals, it could explain the low sulfur content of interstellar ices, which has implications for sulfur storage in our Solar System. For example, the atmosphere of Venus contains sulfur-containing molecules, which could have been derived in part from interstellar-inherited minerals.”