Key Takeaways

  1. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has detected a new carbon compound, methyl cation (CH3+), in a young star system located in the Orion Nebula.
  2. CH3+ plays a crucial role in forming complex carbon-based molecules, making it essential for understanding the origins of life in the universe.
  3. Webb’s exceptional sensitivity and resolution were instrumental in making this groundbreaking discovery.
  4. Intense UV radiation in the star system may have facilitated the formation of CH3+, defying expectations that it would destroy complex organic molecules.
  5. The absence of water and the unique molecular composition in the star system provide valuable insights into the early chemical stages of life’s origins.
These Webb images show a part of the Orion Nebula known as the Orion Bar. The largest image, on the left, is from Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) instrument. At upper right, the telescope is focused on a smaller area using Webb’s MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument). At the very center of the MIRI area is a young star system with a protoplanetary disk named d203-506. The pullout at the bottom right displays a combined NIRCam and MIRI image of this young system. Credits: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Zamani (ESA/Webb), and the PDRs4All ERS Team

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has achieved a major milestone by detecting a new carbon compound in space for the first time. The molecule, known as methyl cation (CH3+), plays a vital role in the formation of more complex carbon-based molecules. The groundbreaking discovery was made in the young star system d203-506, situated approximately 1,350 light-years away in the Orion Nebula.

Carbon compounds serve as the building blocks of all known life forms, making them a subject of great interest to scientists seeking to comprehend the origins of life on Earth and the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. The study of interstellar organic chemistry has been a captivating pursuit for astronomers, and the James Webb Space Telescope is revolutionizing this field.

This image taken by Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) shows a part of the Orion Nebula known as the Orion Bar. It is a region where energetic ultraviolet light from the Trapezium Cluster — located off the upper-left corner — interacts with dense molecular clouds. The energy of the stellar radiation is slowly eroding the Orion Bar, and this has a profound effect on the molecules and chemistry in the protoplanetary disks that have formed around newborn stars here.
Credits: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Zamani (ESA/Webb), and the PDRs4All ERS Team

The unparalleled capabilities of the Webb telescope, including its exceptional spatial and spectral resolution, as well as its high sensitivity, were instrumental in this discovery. By detecting a series of crucial emission lines from CH3+, Webb solidified the significance of this carbon molecule in interstellar chemistry.

Marie-Aline Martin-Drumel from the University of Paris-Saclay emphasized that this detection not only affirms the extraordinary sensitivity of Webb but also validates the central role of CH3+ in interstellar chemistry.

This image from Webb’s MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument) shows a small region of the Orion Nebula. At the center of this view is a young star system with a protoplanetary disk named d203-506. An international team of astronomers detected a new carbon molecule known as methyl cation for the first time in d203-506. Credits: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Zamani (ESA/Webb), and the PDRs4All ERS Team

Despite the intense ultraviolet (UV) radiation from nearby massive stars bombarding the d203-506 star system, the presence of CH3+ was surprising. However, scientists speculate that this UV radiation might actually be the energy source that facilitates the formation of CH3+, which then triggers further chemical reactions to produce more complex carbon molecules.

Interestingly, the molecules observed in d203-506 differ significantly from those found in typical protoplanetary disks, as there were no signs of water detected. This points to the transformative role of UV radiation in the chemical evolution of protoplanetary disks and its potential significance in the early stages of the origins of life.

Read full article on NASA.GOV

A cloudy nebula with two large, bright stars in the bottom-right. The material to the top-left is dull in colour, thick and smoky. A wall of brighter purple material crosses the view in the bottom-right. Beyond this bar, the material is wispier and more sparse. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team

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