Scientists Found Carbon in an Ancient Place Where It Was Never Supposed to Be

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Life May Have Kicked Off Earlier Than We ThoughtAitor Diago - Getty Images
  • Scientists estimate that the universe garnered enough carbon to form planets some one billion years after the Big Bang.

  • But that timeline might be a bit more complicated—a new study analyzing a primordial galaxy named GS-z12, which formed 350 million years after the Big Bang, contained clouds of carbon.

  • This could indicate that early stars released less energy than expected when going supernova, and instead released their outer carbon shells rather than consuming the element in a black hole.

The nonmetallic chemical element carbon is the essential building block of all life (at least on Earth). Because the element can combine with so many other elements—including itself, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and more—carbon is seen as required for complex life to take shape.

During the early (millions of) years after the Big Bang, no carbon existed, because the early universe contained only light elements like hydrogen and helium (as well as trace amounts of lithium). Scientists estimate that the heavy element-engines, which were the very first stars, likely churned out enough carbon to form planets around one billion years after the Big Bang.

However, scientists from the University of Cambridge are altering that timeline significantly after analyzing data from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). In that data lurked an ancient galaxy named GS-z12—one of the most distant ever observed at some 13 billion light-years away—in which the experts discovered traces of clouds of carbon. Accepted for publication by the Astronomy & Astrophysics and posted to the preprint server arXiv, the study could prove that carbon was present in the universe as early as 350 million years after the Big Bang.

“Earlier research suggested that carbon started to form in large quantities relatively late – about one billion years after the Big Bang,” Roberto Maiolino, a co-author of the study, said in a press statement. “But we’ve found that carbon formed much earlier – it might even be the oldest metal of all.”

JWST’s Near Infrared Spectrograph, or NIRSpec, allows the groundbreaking space telescope to analyze light from this galaxy in a spectrum of colors. This is particularly important because GS-z12 is both incredibly faint and 100,000 times less massive than our own Milky Way. Luckily, while JWST spends hundreds of hours gathering light from this distant corner of the universe, it also uses its microshutter array to glimpse other objects at the same time.

Because elements leave behind different chemical fingerprints in this infrared spectrum, scientists can analyze the data and determine what exactly makes up this early galaxy. The scientists clearly found traces of carbon, as well as oxygen and neon. This discovery could make scientists rethink the role of early stars in the universe.

“We were surprised to see carbon so early in the universe, since it was thought that the earliest stars produced much more oxygen than carbon,” Maiolino said in a press statement. “We had thought that carbon was enriched much later, through entirely different processes, but the fact that it appears so early tells us that the very first stars may have operated very differently.”

One explanation, according to the researchers, is that early stars released less energy when going supernova than initially believed. This might’ve allowed carbon—likely contained in the stars’ outer shells—to quickly seed the universe, rather than being consumed by a collapsing black hole.

This means life might’ve gotten quite the headstart on the timeline we have long believed to be true. And while that life might look much different than our own, we can likely bet on one thing—it was probably made of carbon.

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