Sean Cate
Sean Cate
May 14, 2024 ·  4 min read

NASA detects new carbon compound in space for the first time

A novel carbon compound has been identified in space for the first time using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, marking a significant achievement for a team of international scientists. This newly discovered compound, known as methyl cation (CH3+), plays a crucial role in forming more intricate carbon-based molecules.1 The detection of methyl cation occurred within a young star system called d203-506, situated approximately 1,350 light-years away in the Orion Nebula.

Carbon compounds serve as the fundamental building blocks for all known life forms, making them particularly intriguing to scientists striving to comprehend life’s origins and potential development within our universe. The study of interstellar organic chemistry, which the Webb telescope is revolutionizing, captures the keen interest of numerous astronomers.

A Big Deal

The exceptional capabilities of the Webb telescope rendered it an ideal observatory for searching for this pivotal molecule. Webb’s unparalleled spatial and spectral resolution, coupled with its extraordinary sensitivity, collectively contributed to the NASA team’s triumphant discovery. Of notable significance was Webb’s detection of a series of critical emission lines emitted by CH3+, which firmly established the validity of the finding.

Marie-Aline Martin-Drumel, a member of the science team from the University of Paris-Saclay in France, emphasized, ‘This detection not only confirms the remarkable sensitivity of Webb but also affirms the previously proposed central importance of CH3+ in interstellar chemistry.’

Read: Scientists have “Discovered the Impossible” – and it could Change Everything We Know About the Dawn of the Universe.

A Bit of Radiation

Despite the fact that the star within d203-506 is a small red dwarf, the system is subjected to intense ultraviolet (UV) radiation emanating from nearby hot, young, massive stars. Scientists hypothesize that most protoplanetary disks, which give rise to planets, undergo a phase of such intense UV radiation, as stars often form in groups that frequently include UV-emitting massive stars.

Ordinarily, UV radiation would be expected to dismantle complex organic molecules, thereby making the discovery of CH3+ quite surprising. However, the team thinks that UV radiation might actually serve as the energy source necessary for the initial formation of CH3+. Once formed, the methyl cation would further facilitate additional chemical reactions, leading to the construction of more intricate carbon molecules.

In a broader context, the team highlights the distinct nature of the molecules observed within d203-506 when compared to typical protoplanetary disks. Notably, they found no evidence of water.

Olivier Berné, the lead author of the study from the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Toulouse, elaborated, “This clearly demonstrates that ultraviolet radiation has the potential to profoundly alter the chemistry of a protoplanetary disk. It may indeed play a critical role in the early chemical stages of the origins of life.”2

These noteworthy findings, originating from the PDRs4ALL Early Release Science program, have been published in the journal Nature on NASA’s behalf.

NASA’s Webb Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope stands as the world’s foremost space science observatory, poised to unravel mysteries within our solar system, explore distant worlds orbiting other stars, and delve into the enigmatic structures and origins of our universe, providing invaluable insights into our existence. Webb represents an international collaborative effort led by NASA, in conjunction with its partners, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency.

The construction of Webb commenced in 2004, and in 2005, the Centre Spatial Guyanais (CSG) spaceport in French Guiana, operated by the European Space Agency, was selected as the launch site.3 An Ariane 5 rocket was chosen as the launch vehicle. By 2011, all 18 mirror segments were completed and successfully tested to meet the required specifications.

Between 2012 and 2013, the individual components of Webb, manufactured in various locations, started arriving at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. In 2013, the construction of the sunshield layers began. From 2013 to 2016, rigorous tests were conducted on Webb’s scientific instruments to ensure their resilience to extreme temperatures and vibrations. In late 2015 to early 2016, all 18 individual mirrors were assembled onto the telescope’s backplane structure, forming the 6.6-meter (21.7 feet) mirror.

In 2017, the mirrors and scientific instruments were integrated and tested before being transported to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Additional environmental tests of the fully assembled telescope and instrument system took place in a large thermal vacuum chamber at Johnson in 2017, even withstanding the impact of Hurricane Harvey in late August without causing any schedule delays. The final stages of assembly and testing occurred in 2018 and 2019, ensuring that Webb would flawlessly execute its intricate deployment and scientific mission in space. Due to its remote location beyond the reach of human servicing, meticulous preparations needed to be made. On December 25, 2021, at 7:20 a.m. EST (1220 GMT), Webb was successfully launched from CSG.

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  1. Webb Makes First Detection of Crucial Carbon Molecule.” NASA. June 26, 2023.
  2. NASA’s James Webb discovers new carbon compound in space that forms the foundations of all known life: Molecule was detected 1,350 light-years from Earth in the Orion Nebula.” Daily Mail. Stacey Liberatori. June 26, 2023.
  3. Webb Project History.” Webb Telescope.