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SYFY WIRE James Webb Space Telescope

JWST reveals the 'dark chemistry' which occurs before the birth of stars

We need more scientific processes with spooky names like dark chemistry!

By Cassidy Ward
The Ark Season 1 Episode 1

In SYFY’s upcoming deep space science fiction series The Ark, a human crew embarks upon the Ark One, an interstellar spacecraft meant to deliver humanity’s last hope to their new home on a distant exoplanet. Unfortunately, something goes terribly wrong midway through their journey and the crew is awakened, left stranded, adrift between cosmic islands. If they have any hope of getting to their new home, it could mean surviving decades in the space between stars, where they’re likely to encounter some truly unusual things.

Now, thanks to the latest data from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), we’ve got a better understanding of what to expect in some of the most distant and frigid places in the universe. That’s according to new data from the telescope published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Carl Sagan famously quipped, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe," and recently NASA started trading in similar recipes. According to a recent statement from the agency, “If you want to build a habitable planet, ices are a vital ingredient because they are the main source of several key elements – namely carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur.” Those molecules, sometimes referred to as CHONS, are important ingredients for making planets or people.

RELATED: The ‘Stargate’ & blockbuster pedigree behind SYFY’s new original space-set thriller ‘The Ark’

JWST Image of cold molecular cloud

Recently, an international team of scientists using the JWST were able to measure and characterize the deepest and coldest ices inside a molecular cloud to date. Researchers pointed the JWST at the Chamaeleon I dark molecular cloud, roughly 630 light years away from Earth. Inside that frozen cloud they found water ices but they also found other complex frozen molecules like ammonia, methane, and methanol. According to the agency, this is the most comprehensive census ever of the icy ingredients present inside the molecular clouds that birth stars and planets.

“Our results provide insights into the initial dark chemistry stage of the formation of ice on the interstellar dust grains that will grow into the centimeter-sized pebbles from which planets form in disks. These observations open a new window on the formation pathways for the simple and complex molecules that are needed to make the building blocks of life,” said Melissa Mclure, an astronomer at Leiden Observatory, in a statement from NASA.

In addition to confirming the presence of CHONS, the team was also able to confirm the presence of molecules even more complex than methanol, which demonstrates for the first time that complex molecules can form in the iciest parts of molecular clouds. That means that the stars and planets which might form in this region in the future would start up with molecules which are already moderately advanced, chemically speaking. That might suggest that the formation of prebiotic molecules is more common than we previously supposed and, perhaps, that the emergence of life might be more common, as well.

RELATED: JWST goes cloud gazing on Saturn's moon Titan

Ice Chemical Composition

Scientists are also looking for CHONS in other parts of the cloud which might be more difficult to parse from the data. Understanding how those molecules are disturbed among rocks, ices, and dusts within the cloud could determine how much of it ends up in the interior of a planet and how much ends up in the atmosphere, which could impact what sorts of worlds emerge.

Webb is an instrument particularly well-suited for this sort of observation. Using JWST, scientists looked at the ways in which distant starlight from behind the Chamaeleon I dark molecular cloud was impacted as it traveled through. The ice molecules in the cloud absorb some of the light at specific frequencies which Webb is perfectly suited to detect. Looking at the pattern of spectral lines left behind can tell astronomers what sorts of molecules the light interacted with on its way here.

“This is just the first in a series of spectral snapshots that we will obtain to see how the ices evolve from their initial synthesis to the comet-forming regions of protoplanetary disks. This will tell us which mixture of ices — and therefore which elements — can eventually be delivered to the surfaces of terrestrial exoplanets or incorporated into the atmospheres of giant gas or ice planets,” McClure said.

Unfortunately, if we want to explore the weird places in space we have to do it from the comfort of home. But if you really want to experience the dangers of deep space, check out The Ark, streaming Feb. 1 on SYFY!