Clouds of Interstellar "Snowflakes" Are the Key to Life in Space

They're like floating space glaciers.

Water is a fundamental building block for all forms of life down here on Earth. Without it, our pale blue dot would just be another lifeless space rock. It just so happens that water, in the form of giant clouds of “snowflakes,” is also a crucial ingredient to the formation of exoplanets and stars across the universe.

NASA astronomers are planning on using the James Webb Space Telescope — a spacecraft slated to launch in the spring of 2019 — to collect data from hypothetical cosmic reservoirs. Researchers hope they can use this new data to better understand the origin of water in the universe and the formation of habitable planets.

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A majority of the water in the universe is found in molecular clouds surrounding newborn stars — think of them like the glaciers of space. Inside of this interstellar fog, elements like hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen stick to tiny specks of dust-forming snowflakes. These are then swept up by infant planets, delivering the components for life.

This animation depicts the formation of "snowflakes" inside of the a molecular cloud disk surrounding a young star. Within the disk, tiny dust grains accumulate layers of ice over thousands of years. These cosmic snowflakes are swept up by forming planets, delivering key ingredients for life.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt

“If we can understand the chemical complexity of these ices in the molecular cloud, and how they evolve during the formation of a star and its planets, then we can assess whether the building blocks of life should exist in every star system,” Melissa McClure, the principal investigator on a research project to investigate cosmic ices, says in a NASA statement.

McClure and her team of researchers will use Webb’s infrared light detectors to examine the light emanating from these clouds of gas. Every type of molecule absorbs light in a distinct way, so by analyzing the brightness and wavelength of each cloud, scientists can determine what it is composed of.

This research could be a huge asset in the search for habitable exoplanets. Instead of having to randomly check every observed star system, scientists will be able to glance at these clouds to see if the building blocks for life are present.

This simulated spectrum from the Webb telescope illustrates the kinds of molecules that may be detected in star-forming regions like the Eagle Nebula (background).

NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team, and M. McClure (Universiteit van Amsterdam) and A. Boogert (University of Hawaii)

“Laboratory studies will help address two key questions. The first is what molecules are present,” Karin Öberg, an investigator on the project, explains in a press release. “But just as important, we’ll look at how the ices got there. How did they form? What we find with Webb will help inform our models and allow us to understand the mechanisms for ice formation at very low temperatures.”

The group estimates it will take years to fully mine all of the data from these floating space glaciers, but this study will hopefully lead to a whole new understanding of how we got here and where other forms of life could be hiding.

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