James Webb discovered molecules in a galaxy 12,000 million light-years away that could be precursors to life.

Scientists know that tobacco smoke, produced by cooking with wood or burning charcoal, produces compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which are highly toxic and can cause diseases such as cancer. However, it is more common in galaxies, meteors or nebulae, and its presence is not as threatening as it is on Earth today. In fact, it is one of the reasons why life appeared on our planet. Now, an international team led by astronomers from the University of Texas, thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope, has discovered the most distant galaxy, 12 billion light-years away, that contains this material. The results have now been published in the journal ‘Nature‘.

Using the Webb Telescope, Texas A&M University astronomer Justin Spilker and his collaborators detected organic molecules in a galaxy 12 billion light-years away. Because of its extreme distance, the light detected by astronomers began its journey after the Big Bang, when the universe was less than 1.5 billion years old. The galaxy was first discovered by the South Pole Telescope in 2013 and has since been studied by several observatories, including the ALMA radio telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope.

However, with the James Webb telescope, it has not been possible until now to detect the presence of these carbon molecules. The Web and the ‘Luck’ of a Better Help: A Gravitational Lens. This phenomenon, predicted by Albert Einstein, occurs when light from a distant object bends as it passes near massive objects such as a galaxy cluster. By doing so, as if it were a giant space magnifying glass, the objects scientists observe are distorted and magnified, making them appear closer. This phenomenon allows astronomers to study distant galaxies that would otherwise be too dim to see.

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In this case, they are two galaxies that are almost perfectly aligned from Webb’s point of view. The light from the background galaxy is expanded and magnified by the ring-shaped foreground galaxy known as the Einstein ring.

The galaxy observed by Webb shows an Einstein ring caused by a phenomenon called lensing. Lensing occurs when two galaxies are almost perfectly aligned from our perspective on Earth. The gravitational pull of the foreground galaxy distorts and magnifies light from the background as if viewed through the stem of a wine glass. Because they magnify, the lenses allow astronomers to study more distant galaxies in greater detail than would otherwise be possible.

S. Doyle / J. Spilker

“By combining the Web’s amazing capabilities with a natural ‘cosmic magnifying glass,’ we were able to see more detail than any other,” said George P. And Cynthia Fellows explains Spilker. Woods Mitchell Institute of Fundamental Physics and Astronomy. “That level of magnification really got us interested in seeing this galaxy first through the web, because it really allows us to see all the rich details that make up a galaxy that we wouldn’t have seen in the early universe. Otherwise. ».

Webb’s data found a telltale signature of organic molecules like big smoke. “These large molecules are very common in space,” says Spilker. “Astronomers thought they were a good sign that new stars were forming. Wherever you saw these molecules, baby stars were glowing.

Where there is smoke there is no fire?

However, this claim that where there is smoke there is always fire may not be entirely true in the case of the early universe, which, for example, theoretically revealed stars or galaxies to surprise. They should be. It is true that these elements have always been a good indicator for finding stellar nurseries, because this smoke (actually, gas) is the fuel or food for these newborns. It is consumed by supermassive black holes that often reside in the centers of galaxies. However, the team was able to rule out the presence of one of these monsters disrupting the PAH measurements.

They noticed that the distribution of these molecules was not as expected: there were regions where they found PAHs, but stars had not formed recently. Another way: Star nurseries have no trace of this molecule. This finding suggests that the interstellar medium in the early stages of the universe may have been significantly different from the medium we see now, and may have been more mature. However, the authors stress that more studies are needed to determine how different these two ages of the universe are.

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