Webb Telescope makes groundbreaking water discovery in solar system's asteroid belt

Telescope spots water in asteroid belt for first time, which may be source of Earth's life-giving oceans

Anadolu Agency May 17, 2023
Webb Telescope makes groundbreaking water discovery in solar system's asteroid belt. PHOTO: ANADOLU AGENCY

The James Webb Space Telescope has made the first discovery of water located in the solar system’s main asteroid belt, which scientists believe may be the source of the Earth’s oceans.

The discovery could give scientists insight into how the world's oceans were formed, US space agency NASA said in a statement to media outlets.

Astronomers using the $10 billion Webb telescope's near-infrared spectrograph instrument have confirmed that water vapor is present around Comet 238P/Read, which orbits between the gas giant Jupiter and our neighbor Mars.

The discovery confirms the view that icy water can be preserved in the hotter asteroid belt orbiting Jupiter, NASA said, and form the source of water on Earth through asteroids that fell to Earth during the early stages of its formation billions of years ago, long before there were any humans.

Source of water on Earth may be comets

Water near a star is in gaseous form and may have separated from Earth-like, rocky planets in formation, indicating that some astronomers think that comets are the source of water on Earth, according to research published in the prestigious journal Nature.

"As far as we know, it is still a mystery how the water on our Earth, the only planet in the universe that contains life, got here," said Stefanie Milam, a scientist working at the Webb Planetary Science Project.

Also read: Astronomical spectacle: Five planets ‘march in line’

Milam said comprehending the water distribution in the solar system aids in our understanding of other planetary systems and their potential to sustain Earth-like planets.

Comet 238P/Read is a comet located in the asteroid belt.

Water on Read's Comet, but no carbon dioxide

Astronomer Michael Kelley from the University of Maryland confirms water ice presence in main belt space objects using Webb's precise spectral data. However, data from Webb showed that there is no carbon dioxide on Comet 238P/Read.

Under normal conditions, about 10% of the vaporizable matter of a comet consists of carbon dioxide, but Comet 238/Read lacks this gas. Researchers say this was more of a surprise than the presence of water there.

Kelley gave two potential explanations for the absence of carbon dioxide on the comet: carbon dioxide evaporation and separation from the comet over billions of years, or the formation of the comet in a carbon dioxide-free, warm region of the solar system.

Heidi Hammel from the Association of Research Universities in Astronomy (AURA) consortium said celestial objects in the belt are difficult to detect in advance due to their small size and dimness. In the future, using the Webb Telescope, scientists will investigate whether there is carbon dioxide in other main-belt comets.


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