International team of astronomers have made a groundbreaking discovery using the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope, as they observed water and other molecules in the rocky-planet-forming regions of a disc located in an extreme environment within our galaxy.
This new finding challenges previous beliefs about planet formation, as it suggests that rocky planets can form in regions where massive stars are also forming. The research is part of the eXtreme UV Environments (XUE) James Webb Space Telescope program and focuses on characterizing planet-forming discs in the vicinity of massive stars.
The Lobster Nebula, located 5500 light-years away from Earth, has become the focal point of the XUE program due to its proximity and containing some of the youngest and closest star formation regions in our galaxy. Thanks to the exceptional spatial resolution and sensitivity of the Webb telescope, astronomers can study the rocky-planet-forming discs present in these extreme environments.
To analyze the physical properties and chemical composition of these regions, the team is utilizing Webb’s Medium Resolution Spectrometer (MRS) of the Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI). The first result obtained from this study concentrates on protoplanetary disc XUE 1, found in the star cluster Pismis 24, which has been continuously exposed to high ultraviolet radiation.
The research team, despite exploring an extreme environment, successfully detected water and other molecules that serve as the fundamental building blocks of rocky planets. Interestingly, XUE 1 displays similarities to inner discs in nearby star forming regions, suggesting that the formation of rocky planets may occur in a much broader range of environments than previously thought.
However, further observations from the XUE program are required to determine the prevalence of such conditions and how frequently they can be observed. These subsequent observations will play a crucial role in understanding whether the observed conditions are common or exceptional.
This groundbreaking discovery has been published in The Astrophysical Journal, a leading scientific journal in the field. The James Webb Space Telescope is a collaborative effort between NASA, ESA, and CSA, with ESA providing the telescope’s launch service and key instruments. With its cutting-edge capabilities, Webb promises to revolutionize our understanding of the universe and continue to unveil more secrets hidden within the depths of space.