James Webb spots massive amount of carbon around young star

10 Jun 2024

Artist’s impression of a young star surrounded by a disk of gas and dust. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Webb’s instruments detected carbon-rich gas around a young star, which suggests it could be the right environment for carbon-poor planets similar to Earth.

Researchers using the James Webb Space Telescope have found some unusual results around a young, low-mass star, which could help us understand what type of planets form around these cosmic entities.

The team used the space telescope to examine the gases around ISO-ChaI 147, a young star that weighs roughly one-tenth as much as our own sun. The planet-forming disks around low-mass stars such as this are difficult to study because they are smaller and fainter than the disks around high-mass stars.

But studying them is important as rocky planets are more likely than gas giants to form around low-mass stars. By learning more about these disks, scientists aim to understand the planet formation process and the compositions of those planets – which could be similar to or very different from Earth.

Using Webb’s instruments, researchers discovered the largest number of carbon-containing molecules seen to date in the disk of a low-mass star. The team found 13 different carbon-bearing molecules around the disk, including the first detection of ethane outside of our solar system.

“Webb has better sensitivity and spectral resolution than previous infrared space telescopes,” said PhD researcher Aditya Arabhavi, lead author of the study. “These observations are not possible from Earth, because the emissions from the disk are blocked by our atmosphere.”

Since the gas around the star is so rich in carbon, the researchers believe there is likely little carbon left in the solid materials that planets would form from. This suggests the planets that might form around this star would be carbon-poor – similar to Earth.

“It’s incredible that we can detect and quantify the amount of molecules that we know well on Earth, such as benzene, in an object that is more than 600 light-years away,” said Prof Agnés Perrin.

The team plans to expand their study to a larger sample of disks around very low-mass stars to learn how common these carbon-rich planet-forming regions are.

“The expansion of our study will also allow us to better understand how these molecules can form,” explained team member and astrophysicist Prof Thomas Henning. “Several features in the Webb data are also still unidentified, so more spectroscopy is required to fully interpret our observations.”

Last month, researchers looking at data from the James Webb Space Telescope gained new insights about how galaxies formed during an earlier period of the universe.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic