James Webb measured molecules with a strong odor

James Webb measured molecules with a strong odor

This image shows two galaxies, one directly behind the other. Due to gravity, the light from the background galaxy is twisted into a ring around the foreground galaxy – highlighted in blue. This is called the Einstein Ring, and the background galaxy is 12 billion light-years away.

James Webb measured so-called aromatic hydrocarbons – in a galaxy much closer to the Big Bang than we are.

Many astronauts have noticed a specific smell after they go out into space. Some describe it as the aroma of charred, well-cooked steak.

Others describe it as having a pleasant metallic smell reminiscent of smoke from welding equipment, according to him Insider Magazine.

In space, an astronaut can’t smell anything but the inside of his helmet. But this smell appears after people return through the airlock to the International Space Station, for example.

found here on earth

Some of the odor may come from so-called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), according to NASA researcher Luis Alamandola, who Popular Science spoke to about the room’s odor.

This is a chemical compound with which there are variants in interstellar space, while at the same time it is quite a common compound here on Earth.

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PAHs appear, for example, in smoke from bonfires, barbecues and other places where combustion takes place. They are also in cigarettes. You’ve probably smelled PAHs.

And that’s something you find in interstellar space — the space between stars.

Astronaut Scott Kelly during a flight outside the space station. What he smells at this moment is unknown

This is not a cigarette

A large research team has been looking for PAHs in a galaxy far, far away – far, far away.

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– This is the first time we’ve been able to make detailed measurements of the chemical composition in such galaxies, Håkon Dahle tells forskning.no.

He is a researcher and astronomer at the University of Oslo, and is part of the group that recently published a research article in the journal Nature.

Researchers used the James Webb telescope to examine a galaxy that arose about one and a half billion years after the Big Bang. The universe is about 13.8 billion years old, so it is one of the very first galaxies in the universe.

An actual picture of the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon molecule Hexabenzocorona.  The chemical formula is C42H18.  The image was taken using a technique called atomic force microscopy, which allows images of molecules.
An actual picture of the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon molecule Hexabenzocorona. The chemical formula is C42H18. The image was taken using a technique called atomic force microscopy, which allows images of molecules.

The galaxy is also magnified by gravitational lensing. This means that the light from the distant galaxy is amplified and distorted by the gravitational force of a galaxy in the foreground. This makes the galaxy look like a ring.

This is also called the Einstein loop, named after Albert Einstein – who never thought it would ever be possible to observe such effects. was wrong.

The diagram shows how the background (red) galaxy lies behind and is magnified by the foreground (blue) galaxy.  The background galaxy appears as a ring.

The diagram shows how the background (red) galaxy lies behind and is magnified by the foreground (blue) galaxy. The background galaxy appears as a ring.

All in all, the James Webb telescope opens up a number of possibilities for looking at things that astronomers have never seen before.

We’re still at the beginning when it comes to observations with James Webb, but the telescope, for example, was used to spot early galaxies that didn’t fit with current theories about the evolution of the universe, which you can read more about at Foresking.

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It has also been used to investigate a supernova named after the Norwegian astronomer Sjoor Refsdal. You can read more about why this is important at forskning.no.

This image was taken by the Hubble Telescope and clearly shows Einstein's ring.  Here you can see structures in the galaxy that have been smeared into a ring, as in a fun distorting mirror.

This image was taken by the Hubble Telescope and clearly shows Einstein’s ring. Here you can see structures in the galaxy that have been smeared into a ring, as in a fun distorting mirror.

They measured small particles

But in the new study, researchers used instruments on the James Webb Telescope to measure the compositions of tiny particles more than 12 billion light-years away from us.

This is possible due to the enormous sensitivity of the telescope. This is also why the telescope is outside the orbit of our moon. You can read more about the telescope’s background and technical ability at forskning.no.

The particles were detected using spectroscopy. This highly centralized technique involves measuring the chemical signature of molecules by the light that has traveled many billions of light-years before reaching the telescope.

But what are these polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons? And why are they in interstellar space?

At the end of the life of the great stars

The idea, says Håkon Dahle, is that these PAHs appear in regions of galaxies where a lot of star formation is happening.

– Carbon is formed in the last stage of life of relatively large stars, which are two to three times heavier than the Sun, says Håkon Dahle.

When these stars die, carbon is released into the surrounding space – carried by the extremely powerful solar wind. Carbon atoms accumulate on dust grains that float freely in space.

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– located on the surface of dust grains and distorted by ultraviolet radiation from supernovae, among other things.

There is still much that is not known about how PAH molecules form, but this can form PAHs over time.

The expectation was that these particles could be used as a barometer for star formation.

Wherever smoke is found, fire is found?

The researchers’ hypothesis was that if there are lots of PAH molecules, there will also be many stars forming within the galaxy. In other words, where there is smoke, there is fire.

But the research team found no evidence for this hypothesis. In this distant galaxy, the PAHs were unevenly distributed, but it failed to see any clear correlation between the concentration of these molecules and high star-forming regions, at least in this galaxy.

But Dahley also makes it clear that they aren’t quite sure what they’ve noticed. This galaxy could not have been observed before with this type of telescope, because it is covered in dust. This applies to many new findings coming from astronomers using the James Webb Telescope. Since the instrument has a completely new capacity, it can also measure galaxies that have never been seen before, for example.

Perhaps unfamiliar patterns

This dust blocks a lot of light, but not the infrared light James Webb specifically designed to be able to measure.

Therefore, they are also not sure if there are patterns that the researchers have not yet measured or detected. It may be, for example, that the James Webb telescope is currently unable to measure the PAH variables that are perhaps more common in star formation. This may be possible with more investigations, says Dahle.

You also probably can’t smell these molecules floating freely in this very distant galaxy measured by James Webb, due to their very low concentration.

But maybe it’s possible if you get them to combine, Dahley suggests.

Dalila Awolowo

Dalila Awolowo

"Explorer. Unapologetic entrepreneur. Alcohol fanatic. Certified writer. Wannabe tv evangelist. Twitter fanatic. Student. Web scholar. Travel buff."

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