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.
📷 An international team of scientists have used data collected by the NASA/ESA/CSA James #Webb Space Telescope to detect a carbon molecule, methyl cation.— ESA (@esa) July 17, 2023
🧬This discovery may teach us more about how life developed on Earth and how it could potentially develop elsewhere in our… pic.twitter.com/XG4U1PBvAe
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.
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
The findings have been published in a paper called “Formation of the Methyl Cation by Photochemistry in a Protoplanetary Disk” in the journal Nature.