James Webb detects complex frozen elements in a molecular cloud

"We simply couldn’t have observed these ices without Webb."
Chris Young
Chamaeleon I molecular cloud
Chamaeleon I molecular cloud


NASA has just revealed a stunning new image of the Chamaeleon I dark molecular cloud captured by its state-of-the-art $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope.

The molecular cloud is located roughly 630 light-years away, and the new image provides evidence of ices made out of a wide range of elements, a NASA blog post reveals.

New James Webb image reveals young protostar in a molecular cloud

Molecular clouds are interstellar clouds of gas and dust in which molecules — most commonly hydrogen molecules — form. They are also a birthing ground for young stars called protostars.

The new James Webb image shows one of these protostars, called Ced 110 IRS 4, glowing in orange amid the blue of the surrounding molecular cloud. The new image was published in a new paper in Nature Astronomy on Monday, January 23.

The new image shows James Webb's impressive capability for using its infrared imaging instruments to peer through dense dust and gas clouds to reveal the stellar nurseries beneath. Scientists used the starlight of the several stars scattered behind the cloud to take spectral readings of the elements present in the Chamaeleon I dark molecular cloud. Doing this, they were able to determine the wide range of frozen molecules within the molecular cloud, which NASA says is forming dozens of young stars.

The new data revealed the coldest ices observed in the darkest regions of a molecular cloud to date. During their analysis, the team of researchers identified water ice, frozen methanol, ammonia, methane, and carbonyl sulfide.

"We simply couldn’t have observed these ices without Webb"

Ultimately, these frozen materials could lead to the formation of new stars and may even contribute to the formation of life in the distant cosmos.

"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," explained Melissa McClure, an astronomer at Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, and lead author of the new paper. "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."

Researchers on the team highlighted James Webb's crucial role in uncovering impressive data on young stars. "We simply couldn’t have observed these ices without Webb," said study coauthor Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

"The ices show up as dips against a continuum of background starlight. In regions that are this cold and dense, much of the light from the background star is blocked, and Webb’s exquisite sensitivity was necessary to detect the starlight and therefore identify the ices in the molecular cloud."