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Webb detected organic molecules 12 billion light-years away from Earth.


Astronomers using the Webb telescope have made a remarkable discovery in a distant galaxy, more than 12 billion light-years away. The telescope has revealed evidence of complex organic molecules, similar to smoke or smog, which are highlighted in orange in the false-color image. What’s more, the galaxy appears to be almost perfectly lined up with a second galaxy only three billion light-years away from Earth. This remarkable find offers clues about how life may have formed in the early universe and provides an exciting glimpse into the evolution of galaxies.This new finding is a massive breakthrough for astronomy and highlights the capability of the James Webb Space Telescope to detect complex chemistry in even the earliest galaxies. It also shows that the origins of stars, and other complex organic molecules, may reach further back than previously thought. This discovery will open new doors for astronomers in understanding the evolution of the universe.

Using the Webb telescope, Texas A&M University astronomer Justin Spilker and his collaborators have made a remarkable discovery; they have found organic molecules in a galaxy more than 12 billion light-years away. This galaxy was first discovered by the National Science Foundation’s South Pole Telescope in 2013 and has since been studied by many observatories, including ALMA and the Hubble Space Telescope. The extreme distance of the galaxy meant that the light detected by the astronomers had started its journey when the universe was less than 1.5 billion years old, about 10% of its current age. Spilker credits this incredible find to both the combined powers of Webb and fate, as well as 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 point of view on Earth. The light from the background galaxy is then stretched and magnified by the foreground galaxy, forming an Einstein ring.

The study of galaxies in the early universe has been made possible by the amazing capabilities of the Webb telescope combined with the cosmic magnifying glass. According to assistant professor in the Texas A&M Department of Physics and Astronomy, Dr. Spilker, and a member of the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy, the magnification level provided by this combination was what brought them to observe this galaxy in the first place. Without the use of this combination, they would have never been able to get such a close look at a galaxy in such early stages of formation. The magnification has made it possible for us to see all the details that make up a galaxy in its early stages that we could never observe with any other method.

Webb has shown Einstein rings known as lensing galaxies.

The findings of Webb’s data provided a telltale signature of large organic molecules similar to smog and smoke, which are the same hydrocarbon emissions found on Earth that cause atmospheric pollution. However, according to Spilker, the implications of the galactic smoke signals are not as harmful to the cosmic ecosystems. The discovery of these molecules gives researchers a comprehensive view of the interstellar environment which is critical in understanding the physics and chemistry of galaxies. Additionally, this data provides insight that could help better understand the formation of stars and planets, as well as the evolution of complex organic molecules in space.
“These big molecules, which are actually quite common in space, were thought to be a telltale sign of new stars forming, as astronomers believed that wherever the molecules were present, baby stars would also be found. However, the high-resolution images taken by Webb showed that this was not always the case; there were regions with plenty of these molecules but no star formation, and also regions with star formation but no molecules. According to Spilker, this indicates that the idea of the molecules being a reliable indicator of star formation may not be true in the early universe.”
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign graduate student Kedar Phadke led the technical development of the team’s Webb observations, and remarked that astronomers are using the telescope to make connections across the vastness of space that have never been possible before. “Discoveries like this are precisely what Webb was built to do,” Phadke said, “understand the earliest stages of the universe in new and exciting ways.” He further noted that it is remarkable that molecules that can be identified on Earth can be found billions of light-years away, even if they appear in forms such as smog or smoke. According to Phadke, this is a powerful testament to Webb’s capabilities, enabling astronomers to make connections across vast distances.
The team behind this remarkable discovery is led by Dr. Sheperd Doeleman, an astrophysicist from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. In addition to Doeleman, the team’s leadership also includes NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center astronomer Jane Rigby, University of Illinois professor Joaquin Vieira, and dozens of astronomers around the world. The discovery is Webb’s first detection of complex molecules in the early universe — a milestone moment that Spilker sees as a beginning rather than an end. This discovery has opened up a whole new field of astrochemistry and astronomy, giving researchers the opportunity to understand how the universe evolved and how it will continue to evolve.

Webb detected organic molecules 12 billion light-years away from Earth.

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