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James Webb Space Telescope data provides the darkest image ever of interstellar ice

An international team used observations from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to obtain the darkest image ever of a dense interstellar cloud.

An international team including the Southwest Research Institute, Leiden University and NASA used observations from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to obtain the darkest image ever of a dense interstellar cloud.

These observations have revealed the composition of a virtual treasure chest of ice from the early universe, providing new insights into the chemical processes of one of the coldest, darkest places in the universe, as well as the origins of the molecules that make up the planetary atmosphere.

“The JWST enabled us to study ice that exists on dust grains in the darkest regions of interstellar molecular clouds,” said SwRI research scientist Dr. Danna Qasim, co-author of the study published in Nature Astronomy.

“The clouds are so dense that this ice is largely shielded from the harsh radiation from nearby stars, so they are quite pristine. These are the first ices to form and also contain biogenic elements, which are important for life,” said Qasim . .

NASA’s JWST has a 6.5-meter-wide mirror that offers remarkable spatial resolution and sensitivity optimized for infrared light. This enabled the telescope to image the densest, darkest clouds in the universe for the first time.

“These observations provide new insights into the chemical processes in one of the coldest, darkest places in the universe to better understand the molecular origins of protoplanetary disks, planetary atmospheres and other objects in the solar system,” Qasim said.

Most interstellar ices contain very small amounts of elements such as oxygen and sulfur. Qasim and her co-authors are trying to understand the lack of sulfur in interstellar ice.

“The ice we observed contains only 1% of the sulfur we expect. 99% of that sulfur is locked up elsewhere and we need to figure out where to understand how sulfur will eventually be incorporated into the planets that can host life ,” Qasim explained.

In the study, Qasim and colleagues propose that the sulfur may be trapped in reactive minerals such as iron sulfide, which can react with ice to form the observed sulfur-containing ices.

“Iron sulfide is a highly reactive mineral that has been detected in the accretion disks of young stars and in samples returned by comets. It is also the most abundant sulfide mineral in lunar rocks,” Qasim said. “If sulfur is trapped in these minerals, that could explain the low amount of sulfur in interstellar ice, which has implications for where sulfur is stored in our solar system. The atmosphere of Venus, for example, has sulfur-containing molecules, in which the sulfur could partly originate. are from interstellar inherited minerals.”

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