The galaxy observed by Webb shows an Einstein ring caused by a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing. Credit: S. Doyle / J. Spilker
Topics: Astrobiology, Biology, James Webb Space Telescope, Space Exploration
Researchers have detected complex organic molecules in a galaxy more than 12 billion light-years away from Earth—the most distant galaxy in which these molecules are now known to exist. Thanks to the capabilities of the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope and careful analyses from the research team, a new study lends critical insight into the complex chemical interactions that occurred in the first galaxies in the early universe.
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign astronomy and physics professor Joaquin Vieira and graduate student Kedar Phadke collaborated with researchers at Texas A&M University and an international team of scientists to differentiate between infrared signals generated by some of the more massive and larger dust grains in the galaxy and those of the newly observed hydrocarbon molecules.
The study findings are published in the journal Nature.
"This project started when I was in graduate school studying hard-to-detect, very distant galaxies obscured by dust," Vieira said. "Dust grains absorb and re-emit about half of the stellar radiation produced in the universe, making infrared light from distant objects extremely faint or undetectable through ground-based telescopes."
In the new study, the JWST received a boost from what the researchers call "nature's magnifying glass"—a phenomenon called gravitational lensing. "This magnification happens when two galaxies are almost perfectly aligned from the Earth's point of view, and light from the background galaxy is warped and magnified by the foreground galaxy into a ring-like shape, known as an Einstein ring," Vieira said.
Webb Space Telescope detects the universe's most distant complex organic molecules, Lois Yoksoulian, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.