Astronomers have discovered the oldest known examples of complex organic molecules in the universe, according to a new study.
These chemicals – much like those in smoke and soot on Earth – are present early on galaxy formed when Universe It was about 10% of his current age, according to the study.
Carbon-based molecules, technically known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, are found in oil and coal deposits on Landas well as in 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, flexible molecules with dozens or hundreds of atoms in them.”
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These complex organic molecules are common in space, where they are often associated with fine dust grains. Astronomers are investigating 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 particles 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 detected.
Now, using NASA’s new very powerful device James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), Spilker and his colleagues detected these particles in a galaxy known as SPT0418-47 more than 12 billion light-years from Earth.
“It is remarkable that the universe can make large and complex particles so quickly yet the great explosionSpilker said.
Looking at the extreme distance of SPT0418-47, 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 puts the ancient record back for discoveries like this by an additional billion years,” Spilker said.
The discovery was made with the help of a warp in the fabric of space-time known as gravitational lensing. Albert Einstein They discovered that mass warps space-time, much like the way a bowling ball could stretch a rubber plate it was resting on. The greater the mass of the object, the more space-time curves around the element, and thus the stronger the gravitational pull. The way gravity behaves means it can The light bends like a lensso a strong gravitational field, such as the one generated by a huge cluster of galaxies, can act like a giant magnifying glass.
Astronomers have discovered the previous record holder for oldest complex organic molecules using more than an entire day’s NASA observations. Spitzer Space TelescopeSpilker said. By comparison, using JWST, “we only stare at this galaxy for one hour,” he said. “Web makes searching for organic molecules very easy.”
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In addition, while previous efforts to discover complex organic molecules in ancient galaxies could only tell whether or not chemicals were present, “Webb’s resolution allows us to see the actual details of where the molecules are within the galaxy rather than just whether or not they are there at all.” Absolutely,” Spilker said. In SPT0418-47, the presence of these particles was not uniform across the galaxy, and the reason for this remains unclear.
Overall, these new findings indicate that “it is possible for galaxies to form at an increased speed,” Spilker said. “The galaxy we studied is really massive, and its stars formed the same amount of carbon and oxygen as our galaxy milky way, although she is only a tenth of her age. It’s like a third-grader who’s already had a full career — went to college, accomplished a career worth working for, and then retired at the age of eight. The new results from Webb suggest that it’s not very difficult for galaxies to produce really complex molecules from all this rich chemistry going on in space. “
In addition, scientists previously believed that these complex organic molecules were linked to the formation of stars. However, the new data revealed that this may not always be true — Spilker and his colleagues found plenty of regions with these particles but no star formation, and others with new stars forming but none of these particles forming, he said. .
“Finding these large, complex particles in galaxies when the universe was very young is one of the things that many astronomers have been hoping and expecting Webb to do, and I hope that the lessons we learned from this first attempt can help us all as we move forward,” said Spilker. “I’m keen to push for more distant and younger galaxies — can we finally find one that hasn’t had enough time to form particles of this size? I’d also like to better understand why some regions of galaxies have these particles and not others. What distinguishes regions that It had molecules in it that allowed large molecules to form quickly?”
Spilker cautioned that the JWST medium infrared instrument (MIRI) used in the new findings “appears to contain decreased performance now. NASA has a team of distinguished engineers who are currently investigating the cause of the problem. But if performance continues to deteriorate, this may make it impossible to conduct such a study beyond next year.”
Scientists explain in detail their findings Online today (June 5) in the journal Nature.