Astronomers using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) have detected the most distant molecules in the universe, located 12 billion light years away. These molecules found are similar to smoke, soot, or fog on Earth and were observed in light that traveled from the galaxy when the cosmos was less than 1.5 billion years old, at a time when the universe was only 10% of its current age.
The technique used to get a closer look at the galaxy, discovered in 2013, is called gravitational lensing. This phenomenon occurs when two galaxies are nearly perfectly aligned from Earth’s point of view, and the light from the background galaxy is stretched and magnified into a ring-like shape, known as an “Einstein ring.”
“By combining Webb’s amazing capabilities with a natural ‘cosmic magnifying glass,’ we were able to see even more detail than we otherwise could,” says lead researcher and Texas A&M University astronomer Assistant Professor Justin Spilker, in a media release. “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 revealed the presence of large organic molecules similar to smog and smoke, which are the building blocks of cancer-causing hydrocarbon emissions that contribute to atmospheric pollution on Earth.
Surprisingly, the study showed that the presence of these molecules does not necessarily indicate star formation in space. “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,” Prof Spilker adds.
The discovery marks Webb’s first detection of complex molecules in the early universe, opening up new possibilities for astronomers.
Despite this groundbreaking discovery, Prof Spilker sees it as just the beginning of Webb’s potential. “These are early days for the Webb Telescope, so astronomers are excited to see all the new things it can do for us. 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,” he concludes.
The James Webb Space Telescope, launched on Christmas Day 2021, has a 6.5-meter primary mirror and will study every phase in the history of the Universe. As the largest optical telescope in space, it allows the observation of objects that are too old, distant, or faint for the Hubble Space Telescope.
South West News Service writer Jim Leffman contributed to this report.