The James Webb Space Telescope, a name synonymous with breaking records, has once again discovered a remarkable cosmic phenomenon – the coldest ice in the universe. A new study, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, revealed that the interstellar ice reached a temperature as low as minus 440 degrees Fahrenheit, just under 11 Kelvin, and near absolute zero.
The frozen formations were discovered in a star-forming molecular cloud located in a region called Chamaeleon I, in the southern part of the Chamaeleon constellation, approximately 500 light years from Earth. With the help of the Webb’s powerful Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and the illuminating backdrop of starlight, astronomers were able to spot the frozen molecules that would have otherwise gone undetected.
According to Klaus Pontoppidan, a study co-author from the Space Telescope Science Institute, “The ices show up as dips against a continuum of background starlight. In regions that are this cold and dense, much of the light from the background star is blocked, and Webb’s exquisite sensitivity was necessary to detect the starlight and therefore identify the ices in the molecular cloud.”
The ice also contained the vital elements known as CHONS, which are crucial for forming a habitable planet. The scientists found carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur in the form of organic molecules such as methanol and possibly ethanol, as well as other compounds essential for life including carbon dioxide, ammonia, methane, and water. These findings could have massive implications for our understanding of life in the universe.
According to Will Rocha, an astronomer at Leiden Observatory, “Our identification of complex organic molecules, like methanol and potentially ethanol, also suggests that the many star and planetary systems developing in this particular cloud will inherit molecules in a fairly advanced chemical state. This could mean that the presence of precursors to prebiotic molecules in planetary systems is a common result of star formation, rather than a unique feature of our own solar system.”
The scientists were also able to measure the amount of sulfur trapped in the icy dust for the first time, and while the amount was less than expected, they believe that it indicates that other CHONS are still present but trapped in more solid materials, thus avoiding detection. These findings may play a critical role in understanding the formation of organic molecules. As Melissa McClure, lead author and astronomer at Leiden Observatory, said, “These observations open a new window on the formation pathways for the simple and complex molecules that are needed to make the building blocks of life.”