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