Webb Telescope Detects Universe’s Most Distant Organic Molecules

The image captured by the Webb telescope reveals an Einstein ring formation in the observed galaxy, a consequence of gravitational lensing. Gravitational lensing occurs when two galaxies are nearly aligned from our vantage point on Earth, and the gravitational force exerted by the foreground galaxy distorts and amplifies the light from the background galaxy. This distortion can be likened to peering through the stem of a wine glass. Through this magnification effect, astronomers gain the ability to scrutinize faraway galaxies with enhanced detail, offering insights otherwise unattainable. Image credit: S. Doyle/J. Spilker

June 06, 2023

In a groundbreaking discovery, astronomers using NASA's James Webb Space Telescope have detected complex organic molecules in the most distant galaxy ever observed. Texas A&M astronomer Justin Spilker and his team made this remarkable finding, shedding light on the intricate chemistry associated with the birth of stars in the earliest epochs of the universe. Contrary to the belief that "where there's smoke, there's fire," the presence of these organic molecules challenges the notion that smoke signals indicate star formation.

The organic molecules were found in a galaxy, situated more than 12 billion light-years away. This galaxy, which dates back to a time when the universe was less than 1.5 billion years old, offers a glimpse into the early stages of cosmic evolution. The light captured by the astronomers originated from a time when the universe was still in its infancy.

The detection of these complex organic molecules was made possible through a combination of cutting-edge technology and a fortuitous astronomical phenomenon known as gravitational lensing. Gravitational lensing occurs when the gravitational pull of a massive object, such as a galaxy, bends and magnifies the light from a more distant object behind it. In the case of the distant galaxy discovered by Spilker and his team, its light was stretched and amplified into an Einstein ring due to the gravitational lensing effect caused by a foreground galaxy located about three billion light-years away.

By harnessing the powerful capabilities of the Webb telescope and leveraging the natural cosmic magnifying glass created by gravitational lensing, astronomers were able to examine the distant galaxy in unprecedented detail. The high-definition images obtained from Webb revealed the presence of large organic molecules that bear resemblance to smoke or smog, substances familiar on Earth. These molecules are the building blocks of hydrocarbon emissions, which are also found in atmospheric pollutants such as soot.

Previously, astronomers believed that the presence of large organic molecules indicated the formation of new stars. However, the observations from Webb's high-resolution imaging challenged this assumption. The team discovered regions within the distant galaxy that exhibited smoke-like molecules but no signs of active star formation. Conversely, they also observed areas where new stars were forming without the presence of smoke. This intriguing revelation suggests that the relationship between large organic molecules and star formation may be more complex than previously thought.

Kedar Phadke, a graduate student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and leader of the team's technical development for the Webb observations, emphasized the significance of this discovery in establishing connections across vast cosmic distances. Phadke lauded Webb's ability to identify familiar molecules billions of light-years away and hailed it as a testament to the telescope's unprecedented capabilities.

The detection of complex molecules in the early universe marks a significant milestone for the Webb Telescope. Justin Spilker views this achievement as merely the beginning of what lies ahead. With the Webb's potential to explore further, astronomers anticipate uncovering new facets of the universe. The team aims to investigate whether the presence of smoke does indeed imply the existence of fire by studying more galaxies, preferably those located even further away.

The team's groundbreaking research, titled "Spatial variations in aromatic hydrocarbon emission in a dust-rich galaxy," can be accessed online, along with relevant figures and acknowledgments.

The James Webb Space Telescope operates under the management of the Space Telescope Science Institute, overseen by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, and is governed by NASA's contract NAS 5-03127. The South Pole Telescope receives support from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the United States Antarctic Program.

Source - NASA