– A team of international astronomers have discovered the most distant organic particles on record, after studying a galaxy located more than 12 billion light-years away. The galaxy was first discovered by the South Pole Telescope in 2013, and has since been studied by many other telescopes, including the ALMA radio telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope.
Data obtained by this space instrument found tell-tale signs of large organic molecules similar to smog and smoke. These are building blocks of the same hydrocarbon emissions that cause cancer on Earth and are key contributors to air pollution.
According to Doctor Justin Spilker, an academic at A&M University and the lead author of the research, “these large molecules are quite common in space. Astronomers used to think that they were a good sign that new stars were forming. Wherever you saw these molecules, baby stars were there too, shining brightly.”
The discovery was made possible by the combined work of the James Webb Telescope and 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. Light from the background galaxy is stretched and magnified by the ring-shaped galaxy in the foreground, known as the Einstein ring.
For Manuel Aravena, a professor from the Institute of Astrophysics Studies (IEA) at the Universidad Diego Portales (UDP) and an associate member of the Center for Excellence in Astrophysics and Related Technologies (CATA), “the effect of gravitational lensing acts like a natural telescope, magnifying the image and allowing us to see structures in the distant universe that would otherwise be impossible to see. This effect, coupled with the unique sensitivity of the Webb Telescope, has allowed us to see the components of organic molecules in a galaxy in the early universe in a way never before seen.”
According to Manuel Solimano, PhD in Astronomy from the University of Bonn, PhD student at the IEA and researcher at CATA, “the Webb Telescope was specifically designed to decipher how galaxies formed when the universe was almost 10% of its current age. This discovery opens new doors to understanding galaxy formation through the identification of organic molecules.”
The team’s leaders also included NASA Goddard Space Flight Center astronomer Jane Rigby, University of Illinois professor Joaquín Vieira and dozens of astronomers from around the world. The discovery is the Webb Telescope’s first detection of complex molecules in the early universe, a milestone that Spilker sees as a beginning rather than an end. “These are early days for the Webb Telescope, so we astronomers are excited to see all the new things it can do for us,” he stated.
The team’s article, «Spatial variations in aromatic hydrocarbon emission in a dust-rich galaxy», can be read online. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is operated by the Space Telescope Science Institute, under the administration of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., under NASA contract NAS 5-03127. DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-05998-6.
Using the Webb Telescope, astronomers discovered evidence of complex organic molecules similar to smoke or smog in the distant galaxy shown here. The galaxy, more than 12 billion light-years away, aligns almost perfectly with a second galaxy just 3 billion light-years from Earth. In this false-color Webb image, the foreground galaxy is seen in blue, while the background galaxy is in red. The organic molecules are highlighted in orange. (Credit: J. Spilker / S. Doyle, NASA, ESA, CSA)
The galaxy observed by the Webb Telescope shows an Einstein ring caused by a phenomenon known as lensing. Lensing occurs when two galaxies are almost perfectly aligned from our point of view on Earth. The gravity of the foreground galaxy causes the light from the background galaxy to distort and magnify, as if seen through the stem of a wine glass. Because they are magnified, lensing allows astronomers to study very distant galaxies in greater detail than would otherwise be possible. (Credit: S. Doyle / J. Spilker)
SHARE IF YOU LIKE IT