Spitzer Finds Life Components in Young Universe

July 29, 2005

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has found the ingredients for life all the way back to a time when the universe was a mere youngster.

Using Spitzer, scientists have detected organic molecules in galaxies when our universe was one-fourth of its current age of about 14 billion years. These large molecules, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, are comprised of carbon and hydrogen. The molecules are considered to be among the building blocks of life.

These complex molecules are very common on Earth. They form any time carbon-based materials are not burned completely. They can be found in sooty exhaust from cars and airplanes, and in charcoal broiled hamburgers and burnt toast.

The molecules, pervasive in galaxies like our own Milky Way, play a significant role in star and planet formation. Spitzer is the first telescope to see these molecules so far back in time.

"This is 10 billion years further back in time than we've seen them before," said Dr. Lin Yan of the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. Yan is lead author of a study to be published in the August 10 issue of the Astrophysical Journal. Previous missions -- the Infrared Astronomical Satellite and the Infrared Space Observatory -- detected these types of galaxies and molecules much closer to our own Milky Way galaxy. Spitzer's sensitivity is 100 times greater than these previous infrared telescope missions, enabling direct detection of organics so far away.

Since Earth is approximately four-and-a-half billion years old, these organic materials existed in the universe well before our planet and solar system were formed and may have even been the seeds of our solar system.

Spitzer found the organic compounds in galaxies where intense star formation had taken place over a short period of time. These "flash in the pan" starburst galaxies are nearly invisible in optical images because they are very far away and contain large quantities of light-absorbing dust. But the same dust glows brightly in infrared light and is easily spotted by Spitzer.

Spitzer's infrared spectrometer split the galaxies' infrared light into distinct features that revealed the presence of organic components. These organic features gave scientists a milepost to gauge the distance of these galaxies. This is the first time scientists have been able to measure a distance as great as 10-billion light years away using the spectral fingerprints of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

"These complex compounds tell us that by the time we see these galaxies, several generations of stars have already been formed," said Dr. George Helou of the Spitzer Science Center, a co-author of the study. "Planets and life had very early opportunities to emerge in the universe."

Other co-authors include Ranga-Ram Chary, Lee Armus, Harry Tepliz, David Frayer, Dario Fadda, Jason Surace, and Philip Choi, all of the Spitzer Science Center.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. Spitzer's infrared spectrograph was built by Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. Its development was led by Dr. Jim Houck of Cornell.

The Infrared Astronomical Satellite was a joint scientific project sponsored by the United States, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. The Infrared Space Observatory was a European Space Agency mission with Japan's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science and NASA.

For information on the Spitzer Space Telescope visit: www.spitzer.caltech.edu/Media

Explore further: New record: Keck Observatory measures most distant galaxy

Related Stories

New record: Keck Observatory measures most distant galaxy

August 6, 2015

A team of astrophysicists using the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii has successfully measured the farthest galaxy ever recorded and more interestingly, captured its hydrogen emission as seen when the Universe was less than ...

NASA missions have their eyes peeled on Pluto

July 10, 2015

What's icy, has "wobbly" potato-shaped moons, and is arguably the world's favorite dwarf planet? The answer is Pluto, and NASA's New Horizons is speeding towards the edge of our solar system for a July 14 flyby. It won't ...

Why can't we see the center of the Milky Way?

July 10, 2015

For millennia, human beings have stared up at the night sky and stood in awe of the Milky Way. Today, stargazers and amateur astronomers continue in this tradition, knowing that what they are witnessing is in fact a collection ...

NASA image: Stellar sparklers that last

July 3, 2015

While fireworks only last a short time here on Earth, a bundle of cosmic sparklers in a nearby cluster of stars will be going off for a very long time. NGC 1333 is a star cluster populated with many young stars that are less ...

Saturn's outer ring much bigger than thought

June 11, 2015

(Phys.org)—A small team of researchers with members affiliated with the University of Maryland, the University of Virginia and Caltech, has found that the outermost ring of Saturn is much bigger than had been previously ...

Recommended for you

Interactive tool lifts veil on the cost of nuclear energy

August 24, 2015

Despite the ever-changing landscape of energy economics, subject to the influence of new technologies and geopolitics, a new tool promises to root discussions about the cost of nuclear energy in hard evidence rather than ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.