Images taken by NirCam and MIRI instruments of Webb telescope

Webb Detects Crucial Carbon Molecule in a Protoplanetary Disk

The two powerful infrared eyes of James Webb Telescope, NirCam and MIRI, have detected the molecule named methyl cation for the first time in space

James Webb Space Telescope, the infrared space telescope par excellence, began its space observation campaign a year ago. During this period it made significant discoveries, such as the most distant and active supermassive black hole in a Galaxy named CEERS 1019.

The telescope continues to make surprising and unexpected discoveries. This time the two infrared eyes of Webb, Nircam (near-infrared camera) and MIRI(mid-infrared instrument), have recently found a carbon compound called methyl cation. This molecule was detected in the protoplanetary disk of the young star system d203-506, in the Orion nebula, about 1350 light-years from Earth.

The great importance of this discovery derives from the fact that carbon-based compounds are the basis of life. It follows that they are particularly interesting and studied by scientists, whose aim is to understand how life arrived and developed on planet Earth and how it could be able to evolve in the Universe. This field of study is named Interstellar Organic Chemistry, a very complex science that will help us understand the mysteries of existence.


Findings built on the importance of carbon-based compounds 

The study was conducted by an international team of researchers who collected data provided by Webb. This is the first time the methyl cation molecule has been detected outside the solar system, although it has been hypothesized since the 1970s.

NIRcam and MIRI instruments. Credits: NASA/ NASA Goddard
NIRcam and MIRI instruments. Credits: NASA/ NASA Goddard

The molecule CH3+ has surprising properties as it reacts with a wide range of other molecules. This cation is so significant that it is considered to be the cornerstone of outer space organic chemistry.

The star of d203-506 is a small red dwarf and its system is constantly bombarded by ultraviolet radiation from adjacent, hotter and more massive stars. Until now it has been assumed that ultraviolet radiations were only purely destructive toward complex molecules. The recent discovery made by Webb proves the opposite, as this environment full of radiations would provide the energy source necessary for the formation of CH3+. Moreover, it would activate further chemical reactions capable of synthesizing various complex carbon molecules. 

“This clearly shows that ultraviolet radiation can completely change the chemistry of a proto-planetary disc. It might actually play a critical role in the early chemical stages of the origins of life by helping to produce CH3+ , – something that has perhaps previously been underestimated.”

Olivier Berné, University of Toulouse
Images taken by NirCam and MIRI instruments of Webb telescope
The image on the left was taken by NirCam instrument, the upper right by MIRI instrument, which focused on a small area of the Nebula. At the bottom right we can see the protoplanetary disk named d203-506.
Credits: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Zamani (ESA/Webb), and the PDRs4All ERS Team

The findings have been published in a paper called “Formation of the Methyl Cation by Photochemistry in a Protoplanetary Disk” in the journal Nature.


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Beatrice Romeo

Beatrice Romeo

Master student in Aerospace Engineering.
Ocean activist and kitesurfing athlete.

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