Universe’s most distant molecules detected 12 billion light years away

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The James Webb Space Telescope has detected the most distant molecules in the universe, located 12 billion light years away. The molecules found are similar to smoke, soot, or fog on Earth and were observed in light that traveled from the galaxy when the cosmos was less than 1.5 billion years-old, at a time when the universe was only 10 percent of its current age.

The technique used to get a closer look at the galaxy, discovered in 2013, is called gravitational lensing. This phenomenon occurs when two galaxies are nearly perfectly aligned from Earth’s point of view, and the light from the background galaxy is stretched and magnified into a ring-like shape, known as an Einstein ring.

“By combining Webb’s amazing capabilities with a natural ‘cosmic magnifying glass,’ we were able to see even more detail than we otherwise could,” says lead researcher and Texas A&M University astronomer Assistant Professor Justin Spilker, in a media release. “That level of magnification is actually what made us interested in looking at this galaxy with Webb in the first place, because it really lets us see all the rich details of what makes up a galaxy in the early universe that we could never do otherwise.”

graphics shows Webb Telescope in space followed by two galaxies, the first one blue, the second one red. The alignment of the galaxy causes the light from the background galaxy to be distorted and magnified, like looking through the stem of a wine glass
The galaxy observed by Webb shows an Einstein ring caused by a phenomenon known as lensing, which occurs when two galaxies are almost perfectly aligned from our perspective on Earth. The gravity from the galaxy in the foreground causes the light from the background galaxy to be distorted and magnified, like looking through the stem of a wine glass. Because they are magnified, lensing allows astronomers to study very distant galaxies in more detail than otherwise possible.
(credit: S. Doyle / J. Spilker)

The data from the Webb telescope revealed the presence of large organic molecules similar to smog and smoke, which are the building blocks of cancer-causing hydrocarbon emissions that contribute to atmospheric pollution on Earth. Surprisingly, the study showed that the presence of these molecules does not necessarily indicate star formation in space.

“Thanks to the high-definition images from Webb, we found a lot of regions with smoke but no star formation, and others with new stars forming but no smoke,” Prof. Spilker adds.

The discovery marks Webb’s first detection of complex molecules in the early universe, opening up new possibilities for astronomers. Despite this groundbreaking discovery, Prof. Spilker sees it as just the beginning of Webb’s potential.

“These are early days for the Webb Telescope, so astronomers are excited to see all the new things it can do for us. Now that we’ve shown this is possible for the first time, we’re looking forward to trying to understand whether it’s really true that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Maybe we’ll even be able to find galaxies that are so young that complex molecules like these haven’t had time to form in the vacuum of space yet, so galaxies are all fire and no smoke. The only way to know for sure is to look at more galaxies, hopefully even further away than this one,” the researcher concludes.

The James Webb Space Telescope, launched on Christmas Day 2021, has a 6.5-meter primary mirror and will study every phase in the history of the Universe. As the largest optical telescope in space, it allows the observation of objects that are too old, distant, or faint for the Hubble Space Telescope.

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South West News Service writer Jim Leffman contributed to this report.

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  1. Yeayy. For only 120 Billion dollars, scientist have found smoke 50 million light years away. What a relief.

  2. How do they really know if it’s 50 million light years away????. What about 46 million….my opinion no one really know…technology isn’t perfect!!

  3. Can we stop looking for things that are so far away we may never reach them and start looking to other planets in our solar system and learn more about them? Maybe look at a galaxy that’s actually a distance humans can reach before their death?

  4. I think its a brilliant dishgover man kind will never get there but we never know space might be conkered not in our lifetime but we never know

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