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JWST has seen building blocks of life in a dark, cold cloud in space

The James Webb Space Telescope has observed a frigid cloud of dust and gas where stars are forming, and it found frozen elements that are crucial for the development of life


23 January 2023

In the central region of the Chamaeleon I cloud, light from background stars (orange) reveals elements in the cold, wispy cloud (blue) of dust and gas

NASA, ESA, CSA, and M. McClure (Leiden)

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has peered into a frigid cloud of dust and gas, looking for the elements that will eventually be incorporated into new planets. The chemistry in molecular clouds like this one is crucial for creating the building blocks of life.

The Chamaeleon I cloud, pictured in the new JWST image, is a star-forming region around 500 light years away. Researchers investigated one of the coldest, darkest regions of the cloud, a dense clump where stars are beginning to form.

The team used what little light passed through this region to identify the ices present there – as starlight filtered through the ice, the atoms and molecules of the cloud absorbed certain wavelengths of light in unique “fingerprints”. These fingerprints allowed the researchers to identify simple ices such as water, carbon dioxide and ammonia, but also more complicated ones including methanol and other organic molecules.

“Our results provide insights into the initial, dark chemistry stage of the formation of ice on the interstellar dust grains that will grow into the centimeter-sized pebbles from which planets form in disks,” said Melissa McClure at Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands in a statement. “This [line of study] 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.”

These elements are crucial to the development of life, so understanding how much of each of them is incorporated into a newborn planet can help us determine how habitable that world will end up being. The fact that Chamaeleon I contains complex elements indicates that planets might be born with some of the building blocks of life already baked in.

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