Webb just detected an important thing during the evolution of the Universe: carbon-rich dust grains. Here's what you need to know

Credit image: ESA/Webb, NASA, ESA, CSA, B. Robertson (UC Santa Cruz), B. Johnson (Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian), S. Tacchella (University of Cambridge, M. Rieke (Univ. of Arizona), D. Eisenstein (Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian), A. Pagan (STScI)
Credit image: ESA/Webb, NASA, ESA, CSA, B. Robertson (UC Santa Cruz), B. Johnson (Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian), S. Tacchella (University of Cambridge, M. Rieke (Univ. of Arizona), D. Eisenstein (Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian), A. Pagan (STScI)

Article by: Andacs Robert Eugen, on 19 July 2023, at 10:36 am PDT

Those seemingly vacant spaces in our universe are actually filled with clouds of gas and cosmic dust. These dust grains come in all shapes and sizes, floating around and causing a ruckus. They're like the cosmic party crashers that astronomers both love and hate.

This cosmic dust is one of the most important things we need to study about in order to understand the universe's evolution. It's like the raw material for creating new stars and planets. But here's the catch: this dust has a knack for absorbing light, making it a real pain for astronomers trying to get a clear view of things. It's like trying to watch a movie with someone constantly blocking your view. Frustrating, right?

However, astronomers have found a way to turn this dust's mischievous behavior to their advantage. They discovered that certain molecules in the dust interact with specific wavelengths of light, creating a cosmic fingerprint. It's like catching a thief red-handed. By observing the wavelengths of light that the dust blocks, they can gather information about its composition. It's detective work in space, folks.

Using the James Webb Space Telescope, an international team of astronomers found carbon-rich dust grains that date back a billion years after the universe's birth. It's like finding ancient relics from a time when everything was still a cosmic baby.

Joris Witstok, the lead author of this study from the University of Cambridge, couldn't contain his excitement. He said, "Hey, we found these carbon-rich dust grains that are great at absorbing ultraviolet light. And get this, we spotted them in the spectra of very early galaxies for the first time ever!" Talk about being a cosmic trendsetter.

This specific feature associated with dust grains is usually found in more recent parts of the universe. It's like finding a classic vinyl record in the age of streaming. Scientists previously thought it was due to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) or tiny graphitic grains, things that take time to form.

So, what's the deal? Well, the team noticed a small difference in the wavelength where the absorption is strongest. It's like a cosmic game of "Spot the Difference." Instead of the expected 217.5 nanometers, they found a peak at 226.3 nanometers.

Joris Witstok chimed in, saying, "This slight shift suggests we might be dealing with a different mix of grains. We're talking graphite- or diamond-like grains here, folks. It's like finding a hidden gem in the universe!" Who knew the universe had a bling collection?

Now, these findings have got astronomers scratching their heads. How did these grains form so early in the universe's history? Some theories point to Wolf-Rayet stars and supernova ejecta as the culprits. These stars are like the rockstars of the cosmic stage—hot and prone to living fast and dying young. They might be responsible for creating and spreading these carbon-rich grains in a cosmic blink of an eye.

Roberto Maiolino, a member of the team, couldn't contain his excitement about Webb's abilities. He said, "Webb's sensitivity is like upgrading from a tiny telescope to a giant one. It's like going from Galileo's peephole telescope to the mother of all telescopes!" Talk about a serious telescope glow-up.

These findings are part of the JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey (JADES), a program of NASA, ESA, and CSA dedicated mostly to observing distant galaxies. They've been peering into the past, discovering galaxies that existed when the universe was just a cosmic toddler.

Renske Smit from Liverpool John Moores University added, "This discovery shows us that infant galaxies grow up faster than we ever thought possible. It's like they're sprinting through the universe, leaving us in awe." These galaxies are like overachievers of the cosmic kind.

So, there you have it—cosmic dust, the troublemakers and game-changers of the universe. They might block our view, but they also hold the secrets to the universe's evolution. With Webb's incredible powers, astronomers are poised to unlock more mysteries and understand the cosmic dance on a whole new level.

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