June 06, 2023 #ChileDiverso

Chilean astronomers participate in the discovery of the most distant organic molecules in the Universe

Accessibility settings

● The discovery, published today in the journal Nature, was made by the James Webb Telescope. Among the participating scientists are Chileans Manuel Aravena and Manuel Solimano from the Diego Portales University and the Center of Excellence in Astrophysics CATA.
● Such molecules can also be found on Earth in the form of smoke, soot and smog, demonstrating the enormous power of the James Webb to help understand the complex chemistry that goes hand in hand with the birth of new stars, even in the earliest periods of the universe's history. "At least for galaxies, the new findings cast doubt on the old adage that 'where there's smoke, there's fire,'" says Dr. Aravena.

Chile – An international team of astronomers discovered the most distant organic particles on record, after studying a galaxy located more than 12 billion light-years away, a galaxy that was first discovered by the South Pole Telescope in 2013, and has since been studied by many telescopes. including the ALMA radio telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope.

The data obtained by this space instrument found the telltale signature of large organic molecules similar to smog and smoke, building blocks of the same cancer-causing hydrocarbon emissions on Earth that are key contributors to air pollution.

According to Dr. Justin Spilker, an academic at Texas A&M University and first author of the research, "These large molecules are quite common in space. Astronomers used to think they were a good sign that new stars were forming. Wherever you saw these molecules, the baby stars were also there glowing."

The discovery was made possible by the combined work of the James Webb Telescope and a phenomenon called gravitational lensing. Lensing, originally predicted by Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, occurs when two galaxies are almost perfectly aligned from our vantage point on Earth. The light from the background galaxy is stretched and magnified by the ring-shaped foreground galaxy, known as Einstein's ring.

For Manuel Aravena, who is a professor at the Institute of Astrophysical Studies (IEA) of the Diego Portales University (UDP) and an associate member of the CATA Center of Excellence in Astrophysics, "the gravitational lensing effect acts like a natural telescope, amplifying the image and allowing us to see structures in the distant universe that would be impossible to see otherwise. This effect, coupled with the unique sensitivity of the Webb telescope, has allowed us to see the components of organic molecules in a galaxy in the early universe in a way never seen before."

According to Manuel Solimano, PhD in Astronomy at the University of Bonn, PhD student at the IEA of UDP and researcher at CATA, "the Webb telescope was specifically designed to decipher how galaxies formed when the universe was almost 10% of its current age. This discovery opens new doors for the understanding of galactic formation through the identification of organic molecules."

The team's leadership also includes NASA Goddard Space Flight Center astronomer Jane Rigby, University of Illinois professor Joaquin Vieira, and dozens of astronomers from around the world. The discovery corresponds to Webb's first detection of complex molecules in the early universe, a milestone that Spilker sees as a beginning rather than an end. "These are early days for the Webb Telescope, so astronomers are excited to see all the new things it can do for us," Spilker said.

The team's paper, "Spatial variations in aromatic hydrocarbon emission in a dust-rich galaxy," can be viewed online. JWST is operated by the Space Telescope Science Institute under the administration of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., under NASA contract NAS 5-03127. DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-05998-6.

Header image

Using the Webb telescope, astronomers discovered evidence of complex organic molecules similar to smoke or smog in the distant galaxy shown here. The galaxy, more than 12 billion light-years away, aligns almost perfectly with a second galaxy just 3 billion light-years from our perspective on Earth. In this false-color Webb image, the foreground galaxy is shown in blue, while the background galaxy is red. Organic molecules are highlighted in orange. (Credit: J. Spilker/S. Doyle, NASA, ESA, CSA)

Explanatory graphic

The galaxy observed by Webb shows an Einstein ring caused by a phenomenon known as lensing. Lensing occurs when two galaxies are almost perfectly aligned from our perspective on Earth. The gravity of the foreground galaxy causes the light in the background galaxy to be distorted and increased, as if looking through the foot of a wine glass. Because they are magnified, the lenses allow astronomers to study very distant galaxies in more detail than would otherwise be possible. (Credit: S. Doyle/J. Spilker)


Image of Chile