NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is set to peer into reservoirs of interstellar water to understand the origin and evolution of key building blocks for habitable planets. A molecular cloud is an interstellar cloud of dust, gas, and a variety of molecules ranging from molecular hydrogen (H2) to complex, carbon-containing organics.
- If we can understand the chemical complexity of these ices in the molecular cloud, and how they evolve during the formation of a star and its planets, then we can assess whether the building blocks of life should exist in every star system, said Melissa McClure of the Universiteit van Amsterdam in Netherlands.
- The project will take advantage of Webb’s high-resolution spectrographs to get the most sensitive and precise observations at wavelengths that specifically measure ices.
- The team will use Webb’s sensitive infrared detectors to observe stars behind the molecular cloud. As light from those faint, background stars passes through the cloud, ices in the cloud will absorb some of the light.
- By observing many background stars spread across the sky, astronomers can map ices within the cloud’s entire expanse and locate where different ices form. They will also target individual protostars within the cloud itself to learn how ultraviolet light from these nascent stars promotes the creation of more complex molecules.
- Astronomers also will examine the birthplaces of planets, rotating disks of gas and dust known as protoplanetary disks that surround newly formed stars. They will be able to measure the amounts and relative abundances of ices as close as five billion miles from the infant star, which is about the orbital distance of Pluto in our solar system.