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Webb Telescope May Reveal Huge Secrets and techniques of Our Universe From Area Mud

Orion Nebula Hubble Spitzer

This picture of the Orion nebula, the brightest spot within the sword of the constellation Orion, reveals carbon-rich molecules known as polycyclic fragrant hydrocarbons (PAHs) as wisps of pink and orange. This picture was captured by way of a team-up of the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes, two predecessors of the James Webb Area Telescope. “With Webb, we’ll have the ability to see much more element, together with variation within the wisps of PAHs that we at present should paint with a comparatively broad brush,” stated Christiaan Boersma, an astronomer at Ames and joint principal investigator on a challenge that can use Webb to check PAHs. Boersma is an prolonged core group member on a Webb Early Launch Science challenge learning this actual area in Orion. Credit score: NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI

NASA’s James Webb Area Telescope is gearing up to ship unbelievable new photographs of distant worlds and far-flung galaxies, however the brand new infrared area observatory may even give us an unprecedented take a look at a tiny element of our universe: area mud. One class of mud might shed new gentle on some massive processes, such because the formation and evolution of stars and galaxies.

Technically talking, the tiniest of those mud particles are polycyclic fragrant hydrocarbons. They go by their initials, PAHs (feels like “pa’s” as in “Grandpa’s slippers”), they usually’re probably the most ample forms of molecules in area. They embrace a complete household of enormous molecules with a construction like hen wire – a latticework of hexagons organized in several patterns.

After they had been first recognized within the Eighties, astronomers found PAHs nearly in all places they pointed their telescopes: in a few of the earliest galaxies, in gasoline clouds the place stars kind, and – nearer to residence – within the ambiance of Saturn’s moon, Titan.

In the past, astronomers were hampered by space dust because telescopes couldn’t see through the dark, massive dust clouds spread across galaxies. With the advent of infrared astronomy, telescopes were able to see through those obscuring clouds, and we discovered that space dust is actually a vital part of star and planet formation. Now Webb is poised to be a game-changer for unlocking its secrets.

“Webb has capabilities that dwarf those of previous infrared telescopes and will revolutionize astronomy,” said Louis Allamandola, one of the pioneers of the PAH field and a researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley.

Unprecedented Detail Ahead in Webb’s Dust Data

When NASA’s Spitzer telescope launched in 2003, with its next-generation infrared technology, PAH research took off.

“Now, Webb will bring superb spatial and spectral resolution,” said Christiaan Boersma, an astronomer at Ames and joint principal investigator on a project that will use Webb to study PAHs in space. “We’ll be able to see details – better details – on smaller scales than ever before. This will reveal how PAHs form and evolve in very different astronomical environments. And that will allow us to unravel the photophysics and chemistry that drive how star-forming structures arise and explain the remarkable diversity of objects we observe, from exoplanets and stars to galaxies.”

Boersma is excited about the detailed spectra Webb will provide. These are like fingerprints for light. When dust molecules are heated by the Sun or another star’s rays, they emit infrared light to cool off. The light patterns, or spectra, can help identify the different types of PAH molecules the light came from – if we can capture it well enough.

With lower-resolution infrared telescope technology, astronomers have detected broad PAH populations or families. Deciphering the spectrum of a single type of PAH is possible, but it’s painstaking work, requiring the synergy of telescope observations, lab work, and advanced computing that underlies Ames’ Laboratory Astrophysics group. The field was brought to maturity at Ames, allowing scientists to recreate in the lab the PAH-forming conditions of interstellar space and measure the spectral fingerprints of the molecules that result.

So far, they’ve nailed down the “light fingerprint” of around 100 different PAHs by studying molecules in the lab and another 4,000 with the help of computers. Armed with all that data, astronomers match known spectra to PAH populations observed in the sky.

It’s a big job, but researchers expect the powerful Webb telescope will bring a whole new approach.

“The holy grail for us is to be able to identify and quantify – directly from the telescope data – the specific PAH types making up the families we see,” said Boersma. “We’re closer than ever, thanks to the fundamental work that came before.”

With Webb’s resolution, they’ll be able to tease out smaller PAH subsets – defined by characteristics such as size, shape, and electric charge – that contribute to the observed spectra. To analyze and interpret the PAH observations, researchers will turn to a database of research built up by NASA scientists. The NASA Ames PAH IR Spectroscopic Database is freely available to the global scientific community and offers libraries of data and sophisticated tools.

“We’re entering the era of ‘PAH research 2.0’,” said Allamandola. “Looking at a spectrum is like listening to a symphony. Webb will allow us to hear all the different kinds of PAHs in the orchestra for the very first time. That is a giant step forward.”

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space science observatory. Webb will solve mysteries in our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.



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