Spitzer Finds Life Components in Young Universe

Jul 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: Planck: Gravitational waves remain elusive

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Telescope to seek dust where other Earths may lie

Jan 22, 2015

The NASA-funded Large Binocular Telescope Interferometer, or LBTI, has completed its first study of dust in the "habitable zone" around a star, opening a new door to finding planets like Earth. Dust is a ...

Extrasolar storms: How's the weather way out there?

Jan 13, 2015

Orbiting the Earth 353 miles above the ground, the Hubble Space Telescope silently pivots toward its new target. At the same time, flying 93 million miles away in interplanetary space, NASA's Spitzer Space ...

Two spiral galaxies in the process of merging

Dec 12, 2014

At this time of year, there are lots of gatherings often decorated with festive lights. When galaxies get together, there is the chance of a spectacular light show as is the case with NGC 2207 and IC 2163

Effects of accretion disks around newborn stars

Dec 08, 2014

Stars are born in dense, cool clouds of molecular gas and dust. When the local density is high enough, the matter can gravitationally collapse to form a new star, a so-called young stellar object (YSO). In ...

10 facts about the Milky Way

Dec 04, 2014

The Milky Way Galaxy is an immense and very interesting place. Not only does it measure some 100,000–120,000 light-years in diameter, it is home to planet Earth, the birthplace of humanity. Our Solar System ...

Recommended for you

Planck: Gravitational waves remain elusive

12 hours ago

Despite earlier reports of a possible detection, a joint analysis of data from ESA's Planck satellite and the ground-based BICEP2 and Keck Array experiments has found no conclusive evidence of primordial ...

Going a long way to do a quick data collection

18 hours ago

Like many a scientist before me, I have spent this week trying to grow a crystal. I wasn't fussy, it didn't have to be a single crystal – a smush of something would have done – just as long as it had ...

How are planets formed?

19 hours ago

How did the Solar System's planets come to be? The leading theory is something known as the "protoplanet hypothesis", which essentially says that very small objects stuck to each other and grew bigger and ...

What's happening in the universe right now?

19 hours ago

There are some topics that get a little frustrating in their pedantry, but can really draw attention to the grand scope and mechanics in our Universe. This is definitely one of them.

User comments : 0

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.