An international team of astronomers has made a groundbreaking discovery using the James Webb Space Telescope. They have observed water and other crucial molecules in the rocky-planet-forming regions of a disc located in an extreme environment within our galaxy.
The findings of this study challenge the existing notion that rocky-planet formation can only occur in regions where low-mass stars are formed. The team suggests that these conditions can also exist in environments where massive stars are formed, potentially expanding the range of possible locations for the birth of rocky planets.
This exciting revelation comes as the first result from the eXtreme UV Environments (XUE) James Webb Space Telescope program. This program focuses on characterizing planet-forming discs in regions where massive stars are formed. The team has chosen a total of 15 discs in three areas of the Lobster Nebula for their observations. Located approximately 5500 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Scorpius, the Lobster Nebula is known for being one of the youngest and closest star formation regions with some of the most massive stars in our galaxy.
During their observations, the team detected water and various other molecules, including carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen cyanide, and acetylene, in the inner rocky-planet-forming regions of the protoplanetary disc. Remarkably, despite the high level of ultraviolet radiation in this extreme environment, the conditions in the inner disc closely resemble those found in nearby star-forming regions where low-mass stars are formed.
Another significant finding of this study is the evidence of small, partially crystalline silicate dust grains within the protoplanetary disc. These dust grains are believed to be the building blocks of rocky planets, providing further support for the possibility of rocky planet formation in unconventional environments.
These groundbreaking results indicate that rocky planets could potentially form in a much wider range of environments compared to previously thought. Nonetheless, more observations from the XUE program are needed to determine the prevalence of these conditions and gauge how common the formation of rocky planets truly is.
It’s important to note that the James Webb Space Telescope, which facilitated these revolutionary discoveries, is the largest and most powerful telescope ever launched into space. This cutting-edge technology is a result of collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), showcasing the power of international scientific cooperation in exploring the mysteries of the universe.
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