Adolescent Galaxies are Incandescent and Contain Unexpected Elements

Light from 23 distant galaxies, identified with red rectangles in the Hubble Space Telescope image at the top, were combined to capture incredibly faint emission from eight different elements, which are labelled in the JWST spectrum at the bottom. Although scientists regularly find these elements on Earth, astronomers rarely, if ever, observe many of them in distant galaxies, especially nickel. Image Credit: Aaron M. Geller, Northwestern, CIERA + IT-RCDS

If the Universe has adolescent galaxies, they’re the ones that formed about 2 to 3 billion years after the Big Bang. New research based on the James Webb Space Telescope shows that these teenage galaxies are unusually hot. Not only that, but they contain some unexpected chemical elements. The most surprising element found in these galaxies is nickel.

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JWST Takes a Detailed Look at Jupiter’s Moon Ganymede

Juno captured this image of Ganymede in July 2022. Now the JWST is taking a look at our Solar System's largest moon. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill

Nature doesn’t conform to our ideas of neatly-contained categories. Many things in nature blur the lines we try to draw around them. That’s true of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, the largest moon in the Solar System.

The JWST took a closer look at Ganymede, the moon that’s kind of like a planet, to understand its surface better.

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The JWST Just Found Carbon on Europa, Boosting the Moon’s Potential Habitability

This reprocessed colour view of Jupiter’s moon Europa was made from images taken by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Most planets and moons in the Solar System are clearly dead and totally unsuitable for life. Earth is the only exception. But there are a few worlds where there are intriguing possibilities of life.

Chief among them is Jupiter’s moon Europa, and the JWST just discovered carbon there. That makes the moon and its subsurface ocean an even more desirable target in the search for life.

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Strong Evidence that Supermassive Black Holes Affect Their Host Galaxy’s Chemistry

This is a composite image of the spiral galaxy Messier 77 (NGC 1068), as observed by ALMA and the Hubble Space Telescope. Red and blue are different chemicals. Red are cyanide radicals concentrated mostly in the center and a large-scale ring-shaped gas structure, but also along the bipolar jets extending from the center towards the northeast (upper left) and southwest (lower right). Blue is carbon monoxide isotopes which avoid the central region. Image Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, T. Nakajima et al.

Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs) are impossible to ignore. They can be billions of times more massive than the Sun, and when they’re actively consuming stars and gas, they become luminous active galactic nuclei (AGN.) A galaxy’s center is a busy place, with the activity centred on the SMBH.

New research provides strong evidence that while going about their business, SMBHs alter their host galaxy’s chemistry.

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The Heaviest Element Ever Seen in an Exoplanet’s Atmosphere: Barium

exoplanet hot jupiter transiting its star
This artist’s impression shows an ultra-hot exoplanet as it is about to transit in front of its host star. Credit: ESO

Astronomers have spotted barium in the atmosphere of a distant exoplanet. With its 56 protons, you have to run your finger further down the periodic table than astronomers usually do to find barium. What does finding such a heavy element in an exoplanet atmosphere mean?

It means we’re still learning how strange exoplanets can be.

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Scientists Discover a New Way Exoplanets Could Make Oxygen; Unfortunately, it Doesn’t Require Life

Oxygen is a valuable biosignature because Earth is oxygen-rich, and because life made all that oxygen. But if we find oxygen in an exoplanet atmosphere does that mean life made it? Or is there an abiotic source of oxygen? Image Credit: NASA

Finding oxygen in an exoplanet’s atmosphere is a clue that life may be at work. On Earth, photosynthetic organisms absorb carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water and produce sugars and starches for energy. Oxygen is the byproduct of that process, so if we can detect oxygen elsewhere, it’ll generate excitement. But researchers have also put pressure on the idea that oxygen in an exoplanet’s atmosphere indicates life. It’s only evidence of life if we can rule out other pathways that created the oxygen.

But scientists can’t rule them out.

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It’s Not Conclusive, But Methane is Probably the Best Sign of Life on Exoplanets

Illustration of Kepler-186f, a recently-discovered, possibly Earthlike exoplanet that could be a host to life. (NASA Ames, SETI Institute, JPL-Caltech, T. Pyle)

When the James Webb Space Telescope aims at exoplanet atmospheres, it’ll use spectroscopy to identify chemical elements. One of the things it’s looking for is methane, a chemical compound that can indicate the presence of life.

Methane is a compelling biosignature. Finding a large amount of methane in an exoplanet’s atmosphere might be our most reliable indication that life’s at work there. There are abiotic sources of methane, but for the most part, methane comes from life.

But to understand methane as a potential biosignature, we need to understand it in a planetary context. A new research letter aims to do that.

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The Building Blocks of Earth Could Have Come From Farther out in the Solar System

Artist's impression of the asteroid belt. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Earth formed over 4.5 billion years ago via accretion. Earth’s building blocks were chunks of rock of varying sizes. From dust to planetesimals and everything in between. Many of those chunks of rock were carbonaceous meteorites, which scientists think came from asteroids in the outer reaches of the main asteroid belt.

But some evidence doesn’t line up well behind that conclusion. A new study says that some of the Earth-forming meteorites came from much further out in the Solar System.

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Even More Complex Organic Molecules Have Been Found in a Protoplanetary Disc. Was Life Inevitable?

This artist's concept a protoplanetary disk around a young star. Researchers at the Leiden Observatory found the large organic molecule dimethyl ether in a protoplanetary disk for the first time. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Will we ever understand life’s origins? Will we ever be able to put our finger on the exact moment and circumstances that lead to living matter? Will we ever pinpoint the spark? Who knows.

But what we can do is find out how widespread the conditions for life are and how widespread the molecular constituents for life are.

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What’s it Like Inside a Super-Earth?

This artist’s impression shows a Super-Earth orbiting a Sun-like star. HD 85512 in the southern constellation of Vela (The Sail). This planet is one of sixteen super-Earths discovered by the HARPS instrument on the 3.6-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. This planet is about 3.6 times as massive as the Earth lis at the edge of the habitable zone around the star, where liquid water, and perhaps even life, could potentially exist. Credit: ESO

We know a ton about the inside of Earth. We know it has both an inner core and an outer core and that the churning and rotation create a protective magnetosphere that shields life from the Sun’s radiative power. It has a mantle, primarily solid but also home to magma. We know it has a crust, where we live, and plate tectonics that moves the continents around like playthings.

But what about Super-Earths? We know they’re out there; we’ve found them. What do we know about their insides? Earth’s structure, and its ability to support life, are shaped by the extreme pressure and density in its interior. The pressure and temperature inside Super-Earths are even more powerful. How does it shape these planets and affect their habitability?

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