Big find! NASA's James Webb Telescope detects alternative form of carbon-based molecules

The James Webb Telescope observed carbon-rich dust grains in the first billion years of cosmic time. Here is what it suggests.

| Updated on: Jul 20 2023, 20:29 IST
NASA reveals stunning Jupiter images captured by James Webb Space Telescope
1/6 Amazingly, currently, on Jupiter, there are auroras, storms, extreme temperatures and powerful winds stirring things up, according to NASA. The images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope could give scientists a look at the conditions of the gas giant. (NASA)
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2/6 Planetary astronomer Imke de Pater, professor emerita of the University of California, Berkeley said, “We hadn’t really expected it to be this good, to be honest. It’s really remarkable that we can see details on Jupiter together with its rings, tiny satellites, and even galaxies in one image.” (NASA)
3/6 The images were captured by the telescope's Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) instrument on July 27, which highlighted the planet's unique features. According to NASA, the NIRCam has three specialized infrared filters that showcase details of the planet. (AFP)
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4/6 The image was created by compositing several images. Auroras are visible near the Northern and Southern poles of the planet. According to NASA, the auroras shine in a filter that is mapped to redder colors, which also highlights light reflected from lower clouds and upper hazes. (NASA)
5/6 The Great Red Spot as well as other clouds can be visible in the images as white since it is reflecting the sunlight. The Great Red Spot is a giant vortex which has been swirling around on Jupiter’s surface for a long time. Jupiter’s 2 moons, Amalthea and Adrastea can also be seen “photo-bombing” the planet. (REUTERS)
6/6 Thierry Fouchet, a professor at the Paris Observatory, as part of an international collaboration for Webb’s Early Release Science program said, “This one image sums up the science of our Jupiter system program, which studies the dynamics and chemistry of Jupiter itself, its rings, and its satellite system.” (NASA/AFP)
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NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope might have detected an alternative form of carbon-based molecules, the study suggested. (NASA/ESA/CSA)

The apparently empty spaces in our universe are not truly devoid of matter. Instead, they are often occupied by clouds of gas and cosmic dust. These dust clouds consist of diverse-sized grains with different compositions, originating from various processes such as supernova events. That's why, this cosmic material plays a vital role in the evolution of the universe, acting as the building blocks for new stars and planets. In the latest development to detect these crucial grains, NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has detected carbon-rich dust grains in the early universe. To be precise, one billion years after the birth of the Universe!

Similar observations of the carbon-based molecules known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) have been observed in the much more recent Universe. According to the study, it is unlikely that PAHs would have emerged within the first billion years of cosmic time.

According to a report in the journal Nature, a group of international researchers, in collaboration with scientists from the University of Cambridge, have proposed that the James Webb Space Telescope might have detected an alternative form of carbon-based molecules. These carbon particles could resemble either graphite or diamond and may have been formed by the earliest stars or supernovas. The findings of the study indicate that infant galaxies in the early universe experienced a significantly faster development process than previously expected.

How do scientists observe these cosmic particles?

The presence of dust causes certain regions of space to be challenging to observe due to its absorption of stellar light at specific wavelengths. Scientists do get information about cosmic dust composition by observing the wavelengths of light that it blocks. In this case, scientists observed carbon-rich dust grains while using this technique along with Webb's extraordinary sensitivity of the near-infrared spectroscopy.

Dr. Joris Witstok, the lead author of the study, Cambridge's Kavli Institute for Cosmology, has suggested that Carbon-rich dust grains can be efficient at absorbing ultraviolet light with a wavelength of around 217.5 nanometers. According to the study, such carbon-rich grains have been detected in more recent and nearby cosmic regions in the past, even within our own Milky Way galaxy. This has been associated with two different types of carbon-based molecules – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and nano-sized graphitic grains.

Based on prevailing models, the formation of PAHs typically requires several hundreds of millions of years, making it unexpected for researchers to observe the chemical signature of these molecules at such an early age in the Universe. Nevertheless, the team of researchers claims that this finding represents the earliest and most distant direct evidence of the presence of carbon-rich dust grains and it needs further observation.

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First Published Date: 20 Jul, 20:28 IST