The James Webb Space Telescope explored a cold, wispy molecular cloud that could provide key insights into the “building blocks of life.”
The Chamaeleon I dark molecular cloud, located 630 light-years away from Earth, had “the deepest, coldest ices measured to date” in a molecular cloud — an interstellar groupings of gas and dust where hydrogen and carbon monoxide molecules can form, according to NASA’s statement on Monday.
A young protostar — Ced 110 IRS 4, pictured glowing in orange to the left — pointed astronomers to the diverse mixture of frozen molecules within the “difficult-to-investigate” region, which is in the process of forming dozens of young stars.
Young stars form as a result of a dense cloud collapsing.
Ices are a vital ingredient to build a habitable planet because they are the main source of several key elements in both planetary atmospheres and molecules like sugars, alcohols, and simple amino acids — including carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur.
Webb’s innovative tools will continue in helping astronomers face a key challenge — finding where these elements are hiding.
“This will tell us which mixture of ices — and therefore which elements — can eventually be delivered to the surfaces of terrestrial exoplanets or incorporated into the atmospheres of giant gas or ice planets.”
This research is part of the Ice Age project, one of Webb’s 13 Early Release Science programs, which is planning further observations.
Camille Fine is a trending visual producer on USA TODAY’s NOW team.
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