James Webb Space Telescope detects crucial carbon compound in space

An international team of scientists has utilized NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to make a groundbreaking finding in space. They have successfully detected a novel carbon compound called methyl cation (CH3+) for the first time. This significant discovery took place in a young star system named d203-506, situated approximately 1,350 light-years away within the Orion Nebula.

The detection of methyl cation is of great importance due to its role in facilitating the formation of more intricate carbon-based molecules. Carbon compounds serve as the fundamental building blocks of all known life forms, making them a subject of immense interest for scientists seeking to unravel the origins of life on Earth and explore the potential for life elsewhere in the universe. The study of organic chemistry in interstellar space, which is being revolutionized by the capabilities of the Webb telescope, captivates numerous astronomers.

The exceptional features of the Webb telescope make it an ideal observatory for the quest to discover such crucial molecules. The telescope’s extraordinary spatial and spectral resolution, coupled with its remarkable sensitivity, played pivotal roles in the team’s achievement. Notably, the detection of specific emission lines from CH3+ by the Webb telescope firmly established the existence of this compound.

This video features 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. The two very large, bright stars are two of the three stars in the θ² Orionis system — the Trapezium Cluster is also known as θ¹ Orionis. The brightest star here, θ² Orionis A, is surrounded by particularly bright and red puffs of dust, which are reflecting the star’s light towards Earth. Its great brightness — it is visible with the naked eye — is due to the fact that θ² Orionis A is itself a ternary system made of three closely bound bright stars. Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Zamani (ESA/Webb), N. Bartmann (ESA/Webb), O. Berné and the PDRs4All ERS Team, Music: Stellardrone – Twilight

“The successful detection not only serves as a testament to the remarkable sensitivity of the Webb telescope but also provides compelling evidence for the pivotal role of CH3+ in interstellar chemistry,” commented Marie-Aline Martin-Drumel, a member of the science team from the University of Paris-Saclay in France. Although the star within the d203-506 system is a small red dwarf, it experiences intense ultraviolet (UV) radiation due to the bombardment from neighboring hot, young, massive stars. Scientists posit that a significant portion of planet-forming disks undergoes a phase of such elevated UV radiation, as star formations often involve the presence of massive stars that emit UV light.

This image taken by Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) shows a part of the Orion Nebula known as the Orion Bar. It is a region where energetic ultraviolet light from the Trapezium Cluster—located off the upper-left corner—interacts with dense molecular clouds. The energy of the stellar radiation is slowly eroding the Orion Bar, and this has a profound effect on the molecules and chemistry in the protoplanetary disks that have formed around newborn stars here. Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Zamani (ESA/Webb), and the PDRs4All ERS Team

The presence of CH3+ in the face of expected UV radiation-induced destruction of complex organic molecules presents an intriguing surprise. However, the team postulates that UV radiation could play a crucial role as the energy source for the formation of CH3+. Once CH3+ is formed, it acts as a catalyst, driving further chemical reactions and facilitating the construction of more intricate carbon-based molecules.

On a broader scale, the team highlights notable distinctions in the molecular composition of d203-506 compared to conventional protoplanetary disks. Notably, they were unable to detect any indications of water within the system. These findings shed light on the unique characteristics of the molecules observed in d203-506, expanding our understanding of protoplanetary environments and their chemical dynamics.

This image from Webb’s MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument) shows a small region of the Orion Nebula. At the center of this view is a young star system with a protoplanetary disk named d203-506. An international team of astronomers detected a new carbon molecule known as methyl cation for the first time in d203-506. Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Zamani (ESA/Webb), and the PDRs4All ERS Team

The groundbreaking findings, derived from the PDRs4ALL Early Release Science program, have been officially published in the renowned scientific journal Nature.

Olivier Berné, the lead author of the study and affiliated with the French National Center for Scientific Research in Toulouse, emphasized the transformative impact of ultraviolet radiation on the chemistry of protoplanetary disks. This discovery underscores the potential criticality of UV radiation in the initial chemical processes involved in the emergence of life. Berné further elaborated on the significance, highlighting the possibility of UV radiation playing a pivotal role in the early stages of the origins of life.

Source: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Leave a Comment