The James Webb explores the ice to study the origin of life

The James Webb, that space telescope that gave us so much interesting news in 2022, has started the new year strong. After other investigations, this time it has helped to analyze the coldest ice in a molecular cloud that has ever been studied. In addition, even new data on the elements necessary for the origin of life have been obtained.

This is due to the fact that some of the elements that James Webb has found in said cloud are precisely the necessary ingredients to cook life. That does not necessarily mean that there is life in all the places where they are present. But at least the pieces that help build it are found.

Furthermore, since molecular clouds are great nurseries for stars, ice analysis can provide very useful information about the birth of these celestial objects. There are many data provided by this new investigation by James Webb, which has just been published in a study in the journal Nature Astronomy.

What is a molecular cloud?

A molecular cloud is a large region within a galaxy in which matter is dense and cold enough for diatomic hydrogen to exist. They are interesting regions, because when gravitational instability occurs in them, the birth of stars can be triggered.

Precisely when the latter occurs, the ice in the molecular cloud sublimates. That is, it goes from a solid to a gas. It is, therefore, something ephemeral and difficult to observe. Or at least it was until now. And it is that James Webb has managed to find the coldest ice measured so far in a molecular cloud and carry out an analysis of the elements it contains. It is much more than diatomic hydrogen.

Orion Molecular Cloud A. It is not the one studied by James Webb. Credit: ESO/VISION survey

The James Webb and the origin of life

Thanks to James Webb, it has been possible to detect both complex molecules and simple elements in ice. In the first group are frozen ammonia, methane, methanol and carbonyl sulfide. And with respect to the simple elements, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur stand out. These, often grouped into a word made up of their chemical symbols, CHONS, are what are known as the ingredients for the origin of life.

It is important to take into account that the presence of all of them is not an indicator of life as such. Using the analogue of the ingredients, we can have flour, egg, yeast and oil. However, separately they do not constitute a cake. And they may never get together to cook it.

Even so, this finding by James Webb is very interesting, since it provides a different starting point for the study of the origin of life and the stars. Also, as explained to IFLScience by one of the study authorsWill Rocha, “The identification of complex organic molecules, such as methanol and potentially ethanol, also suggests that the many star and planetary systems that develop in this particular cloud will inherit molecules in a fairly advanced chemical state.”

That is previously unknown information and “could mean that the presence of prebiotic molecule precursors in planetary systems is a common result of star formation, rather than a unique feature of our own solar system.”

In short, on this occasion the James Webb has entered the coldest and deepest ice to help us better understand how life is built. It is an interesting task.

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