An international team of scientists have used data collected by the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope to detect a molecule known as the methyl cation (CH3+) for the first time, located in the protoplanetary disc surrounding a young star. They accomplished this feat with a cross-disciplinary expert analysis, including key input from laboratory spectroscopists. The vital role of CH3+ in interstellar carbon chemistry has been predicted since the 1970s, but Webb’s unique capabilities have finally made observing it possible — in a region of space where planets capable of accommodating life could eventually form.
This video features NIRCam’s view of the Orion Bar region studied by the team of astronomers. Bathed in harsh ultraviolet light from the stars of the Trapezium Cluster, it is an area of intense activity, with star formation and active astrochemistry. This made it a perfect place to study the exact impact that ultraviolet radiation has on the molecular makeup of the discs of gas and dust that surround new stars. The radiation erodes the nebula’s gas and dust in a process known as photoevaporation; this creates the rich tapestry of cavities and filaments that fill the view. The radiation also ionises the molecules, causing them to emit light — not only does this create a beautiful vista, it also allows astronomers to study the molecules using the spectrum of their emitted light obtained with Webb’s MIRI and NIRSpec instruments.
The two very large, bright stars are two of the three stars in the θ² Orionis system — the Trapezium Cluster is also known as θ¹ Orionis. The brightest star here, θ² Orionis A, is surrounded by particularly bright and red puffs of dust, which are reflecting the star’s light towards Earth. Its great brightness — it is visible with the naked eye — is due to the fact that θ² Orionis A is itself a ternary system made of three closely bound bright stars.