JWST Spots The Ingredients For A Dirty Martiny In Space – But No Olives!

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The clouds surrounding two protostars are rich in complex molecules including some that would not be out of place in your kitchen or behind a bar. Observations with JWST reveal the presence of ethanol, acetic acid, formic acid, and more around protostars IRAS 2A and IRAS 23385.

Ethanol is the alcohol found in liquors; acetic acid is one of the components of vinegar; water and salts are commonly found in space, so a dirty martini could be on the cards – we just need to bring the olives from Earth. The research also found formic acid, which is found and used by ants and a few other insects, and simpler molecules such as methane, formaldehyde, and sulfur dioxide.

JWST’s Mid-Infrared instrument (MIRI) was used to look at the colder surroundings of these protostars. MIRI could look at the ice – something that had not been possible before. In the past, these molecules were seen in more evolved systems where these icy spots turned to gas. But now it is clear that it is possible for them to form during the earlier phases of star formation.

“This finding contributes to one of the long-standing questions in astrochemistry,” team leader Will Rocha of Leiden University in the Netherlands said in a statement. “What is the origin of complex organic molecules, or COMs, in space? Are they made in the gas phase or in ices? The detection of COMs in ices suggests that solid-phase chemical reactions on the surfaces of cold dust grains can build complex kinds of molecules.”

The two protostars are not actively forming planets, but IRAS 2A is a low-mass protostar making it very similar to how the Sun might have been. This could be a snapshot of what the Solar System might have looked like at the beginning before even the Sun was fully the Sun, and molecules now commonly found on Earth were already there.

“All of these molecules can become part of comets and asteroids and eventually new planetary systems when the icy material is transported inward to the planet-forming disk as the protostellar system evolves,” added Ewine van Dishoeck of Leiden University, one of the coordinators of the science program.

The team dedicated these results to team member Harold Linnartz, who unexpectedly passed away in December 2023, shortly after the acceptance of this paper.

This research has been accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.