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Universe’s Most Distant Molecules Detected 12 Billion Light Years Away

“Discoveries like this are precisely what Webb was built to do. 
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The universe’s most distant molecules have been detected 12 billion light years away.

Using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, the molecules, similar to smoke, soot or fog on Earth, were seen in light that traveled from the galaxy when the cosmos was less than 1.5 billion years old.

The light comes from a time when the universe was only 10 percent the age it is now.

Texas A&M University astronomer assistant professor Justin Spilker, who led the study published in the journal Nature, used a trick called gravitational lensing to get a closer look at the galaxy discovered in 2013.

The phenomenon originally predicted by Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, happens when two galaxies are almost perfectly aligned from our point of view on Earth.

The light from the background galaxy is stretched and magnified by the foreground galaxy into a ring-like shape, known as an Einstein ring.

Spilker said: “By combining Webb’s amazing capabilities with a natural ‘cosmic magnifying glass,’ we were able to see even more detail than we otherwise could.

“That level of magnification is actually what made us interested in looking at this galaxy with Webb in the first place, because it really lets us see all the rich details of what makes up a galaxy in the early universe that we could never do otherwise.”

The data from Webb found the telltale signature of large organic molecules akin to smog and smoke, the building blocks of the same cancer-causing hydrocarbon emissions on Earth that are key contributors to atmospheric pollution.

And the latest study has shown that despite the adage “no smoke without fire,” this is not necessarily true in space.

Spilker added: “These big molecules are actually pretty common in space.

“Astronomers used to think they were a good sign that new stars were forming. Anywhere you saw these molecules, baby stars were also right there blazing away.

“Thanks to the high-definition images from Webb, we found a lot of regions with smoke but no star formation and others with new stars forming but no smoke.”

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign graduate student Kedar Phadke, who led the technical development of the team’s Webb observations, added: “Discoveries like this are precisely what Webb was built to do – understand the earliest stages of the universe in new and exciting ways.

“It’s amazing that we can identify molecules billions of light-years away that we’re familiar with here on Earth, even if they show up in ways we don’t like, like smog and smoke.

“It’s also a powerful statement about the amazing capabilities of Webb that we’ve never had before.”

The discovery is Webb’s first detection of complex molecules in the early universe and a milestone moment that Spilker sees as a beginning rather than an end.

The galaxy observed by Webb shows an Einstein ring caused by a phenomenon known as lensing, which occurs when two galaxies are almost perfectly aligned from our perspective on Earth. PHOTO BY S.DOYLE/SWNS

He said: “These are early days for the Webb Telescope, so astronomers are excited to see all the new things it can do for us.

“Detecting smoke in a galaxy early in the history of the universe? Webb makes this look easy.

“Now that we’ve shown this is possible for the first time, we’re looking forward to trying to understand whether it’s really true that where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

“Maybe we’ll even be able to find galaxies that are so young that complex molecules like these haven’t had time to form in the vacuum of space yet, so galaxies are all fire and no smoke.

“The only way to know for sure is to look at more galaxies, hopefully even further away than this one.”

The galaxy was first discovered by the National Science Foundation’s South Pole Telescope in 2013 and has since been studied by many observatories, including the radio telescope ALMA and the Hubble Space Telescope.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is a large infrared telescope with a 6.5-meter primary mirror and will study every phase in the history of our Universe.

Launched on Christmas Day 2021 it is the largest optical telescope in space, allowing it to view objects too old, distant, or faint for the Hubble Space Telescope.


Produced in association with SWNS Talker

Edited by Saba Fatima and Newsdesk Manager

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