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One oceans' worth of water destroyed every month in Orion Nebula, researchers say

The inner region of the Orion Nebula as seen by the James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam instrument. The image was obtained with the James Webb Space Telescope NIRCam instrument on Sept. 11, 2022. Several images in different filters were combined to create this composite image: F140M and F210M (blue); F277W, F300M, F323N, F335M, and F332W (green); F405N (orange); and F444W, F480M, and F470N (red). (NASA, ESA, CSA, PDRs4All ERS Team; Salomé Fuenmayor image via Western University) The inner region of the Orion Nebula as seen by the James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam instrument. The image was obtained with the James Webb Space Telescope NIRCam instrument on Sept. 11, 2022. Several images in different filters were combined to create this composite image: F140M and F210M (blue); F277W, F300M, F323N, F335M, and F332W (green); F405N (orange); and F444W, F480M, and F470N (red). (NASA, ESA, CSA, PDRs4All ERS Team; Salomé Fuenmayor image via Western University)
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An international team of astrophysicists, including from London, Ont.’s Western University, are using the James Webb Space Telescope to reveal the destruction of one oceans’ worth of water every month in a planetary nursery in the Orion Nebula.

According to a news release from Western University, an international team, including Western astrophysicists Els Peeters and Jan Cami, have discovered the destruction and re-formation of a large volume of water in a planet-forming disk located at the heart of the Orion Nebula.

The discovery was made by combining observations from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and quantum physics calculations.

The study, a part of the PDRs4All Early Release Science program and led by University Paris-Saclay PhD student Marion Zannese, was recently published in Nature Astronomy.

A total of 13 Early Release Science programs were selected by NASA to demonstrate the capabilities of the JWST, with PDRs4All being of one those selected.

“It is so impressive that in just a few pixels of observations, and focusing on a few of the lines, we can actually figure out that you have an entire ocean of water being evaporated every month,” said Peeters, co-lead investigator of PDRs4All and faculty member at Western’s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration.

 

The lifeblood of the universe

As far as we know it, water is an essential ingredient for the emergence of life.

Most of the water in Earth’s oceans was formed long before the birth of the Solar System, in frigid regions of interstellar space of – 250 C.

According to Western, a portion of this water could have been destroyed and re-formed at higher temperatures of between 100 C to 500 C when the Solar System was still just a disk of gas and dust orbiting an infant sun.

So why is the recycling of this interstellar water important?

the team of researchers pointed the JWST towards ‘d203-506,’ a planet-forming disk located in the Orion Nebula, and a nursery of planetary systems.

The intense ultraviolet radiation produced by enormous stars “leads to the destruction and re-formation of water in d203-506, making it a true interstellar laboratory," Western said.

“The James Webb telescope is amazingly powerful. We’re not talking about finding a needle in a haystack for this discovery. This is a needle in a haystack made of needles,” said Cami, a physics and astronomy professor and PDRs4All core member.

 

What’s in a molecule?

So how can the formation and destruction of molecules more than 1,000 light years away be observed?

Experts from the Madrid Deep Space Communications Complex in Spain and the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands was the key to understanding how the formation and destruction of these interstellar molecules can be observed.

When water is destroyed by ultraviolet light, a hydroxyl molecule is released, followed by the emission of photons which travel all the way to the JWST, according to Western. In total, it is estimated that the equivalent of all of Earth’s oceans’ worth of water is destroyed per month and replenished in the 'd203-506' system.

The JWST also revealed that hydroxyl, a key intermediate in the formation of water, is also produced in abundance from atomic oxygen. Therefore, some of the water making up Earth’s oceans could have gone through such a cycle.

“This discovery was based on a tiny fraction of our spectroscopic data. It is exciting that we have so much more data to mine and I can’t wait to see what else we can find,” said Peeters. 

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