James Webb Telescope discovers life’s building blocks in the Orion Nebula

Jun 28, 2023

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

James Webb Telescope discovers life’s building blocks in the Orion Nebula

Jun 28, 2023

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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Astrophotographers mainly know the Orion Nebula for its beauty. Being among the brightest deep sky objects, many decide to photograph it with their DSLR or mirrorless camera and a telescope. James Webb Space Telescope made its own photo of this gorgeous nebula last year, and now it made a fascinating discovery. Within a debris disk in the nebula, there’s an essential life-forming molecule. And believe it or not, this is the first time it’s ever been spotted in outer space!

The special molecule, named methyl cation (CH3+), is a type of carbon compound with crucial roles in the formation of life. To make this thrilling discovery, the Webb telescope used its NIRCam and MIRI instruments to explore a part of the nebula where new, bright stars are being born. These stars give off a type of light known as ionizing radiation, causing the nearby gas and dust to glow. But, this glow is more than just eye candy for us here on Earth. It lets spectroscopy instruments examine the makeup of the disk by splitting the starlight into different wavelengths and checking which ones have been soaked up.

This graphic shows the area, in the centre of the Orion Nebula, that was studied by the team. The nebula lies about 1350 light-years from Earth. The largest image, on the left, is from Webb’s NIRCam instrument. On the right, the telescope is focused on a smaller area, where the team have used Webb’s MIRI instrument to add more depth to their study. A total of eighteen filters across both the MIRI and NIRCam instruments were used in these images, covering a range of wavelengths from 1.4 microns in the near-infrared to 25.5 microns in the mid-infrared. The detailed coverage was necessary for the team to study the light from protoplanetary discs, and analyse the unique features revealed by Webb using spectroscopy from its MIRI and NIRSpec instruments. Credits: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Zamani (ESA/Webb), the PDRs4All ERS Team

When scientists combined the data from both the NIRCam and MIRI, they were able to identify the presence of methyl cation. This carbon-based molecule plays a key role in organic chemistry, helping other carbon molecules to come together. It was hiding in a planet-forming disk circling a tiny red dwarf star called d203-506, located about 1350 light-years away from us. This star system is young and receives a high level of ultraviolet radiation from nearby stars. Interestingly, while this kind of radiation often breaks down organic molecules, it seems to have played a part in forming the methyl cation in this case.

This image is NIRCam’s view of the Orion Bar region studied by the team of astronomers. Bathed in harsh ultraviolet light from the stars of the Trapezium Cluster, it is an area of intense activity, with star formation and active astrochemistry. This made it a perfect place to study the exact impact that ultraviolet radiation has on the molecular makeup of the discs of gas and dust that surround new stars. The radiation erodes the nebula’s gas and dust in a process known as photoevaporation; this creates the rich tapestry of cavities and filaments that fill the view. The radiation also ionises the molecules, causing them to emit light — not only does this create a beautiful vista, it also allows astronomers to study the molecules using the spectrum of their emitted light obtained with Webb’s MIRI and NIRSpec instruments. Credits: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Zamani (ESA/Webb), the PDRs4All ERS Team
This hazy image is Webb’s view of a small region of the Orion Nebula, made with its MIRI instrument. Filled with gas and dust, the Orion Nebula is a rich star-forming region. The newborn and young stars emit harsh ultraviolet radiation that ionises the nebula, causing it to emit light at infrared wavelengths. MIRI is sensitive to long-wavelength, mid-infrared emission, highlighting the layers of hot gases on each side of the Orion Bar that stretches through the centre. The area captured here by MIRI is much smaller than the NIRCam view, but contains a remarkable amount of detail, thanks to MIRI’s unprecedented sensitivity at these longer wavelengths.
This zoomed-in MIRI view of the Orion Bar contains the young star-protoplanetary disc system, named d203-506, that the team of astronomers scoured for key organic molecules. MIRI’s contribution to the view of d203-506 was critical to obtaining the widest range of spectra of the system, necessary to confirm their detection of the methyl cation. In particular, the molecule has a strong spectral line at around 7 microns, a wavelength that is impossible to detect through Earth’s atmosphere, but with MIRI’s in-built spectroscopy the team was able to unambiguously confirm the methyl cation’s presence. Credits: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Zamani (ESA/Webb), the PDRs4All ERS Team

Scientists suggest that energy from the radiation might be helping the molecule to form. Other nearby disks, which aren’t bathed in so much radiation, were found to have more water. On the other hand, the disk around d203-506 had no water.

This groundbreaking research has been published in the journal Nature. “This clearly shows that ultraviolet radiation can completely change the chemistry of a proto-planetary disc,” Olivier Berné, the lead author from the University of Toulouse, said in a statement. “It might actually play a critical role in the early chemical stages of the origins of life by helping to produce CH3+ – something that has perhaps previously been underestimated.”

Although this isn’t strictly photography-related, we have been following space photography for a while. You can’t deny that they’re a real treat, especially if you’re into astronomy or astrophotography yourself. But I think this discovery reminds us of the primary purpose of space telescopes, and that’s to debunk the mysteries of the Universe and help us learn as much as we can about it.

[via Digital Trends, lead image credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, PDRs4All ERS; Image processing: S. Fuenmayor]

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Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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