The U.S. space agency NASA's newest orbiting telescope has found evidence of the chemical building blocks of life in a distant galaxy. This result is among the observatory's first group of findings, announced Thursday by exultant astronomers, who say the instrument will change the way astronomy is done.
When the new Spitzer Infrared Telescope was launched in August, NASA said it would provide a new view of the heavens. It has infrared detectors of unprecedented sensitivity to look for the oldest, most distant objects in the cosmos and at cold bodies, all of which shine in the wavelengths just below visible light. The observatory can also see things shrouded in dust, which does not block infrared radiation.
The first results are now in, and researcher Giovanni Fazio of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics is absolutely giddy about them. "The data is just coming in so fast and so wonderful that it's an astronomer's dream. I mean, we're living in a wonder world," he said.
Mr. Fazio and other astronomers revealed images from the Spitzer observatory that they say have exceeded their expectations.
For example, one instrument examined the wavelengths in a galaxy about 3.25 billion light years away and found light emissions characteristic of organic molecules, the compounds that give rise to life. A light year is the distance light travels in one year, so the light from this source originated more than three billion years ago, when Earth was in its infancy.
Cornell University researcher James Houck says he has found organic molecules in hundreds of objects in our Milky Way galaxy and in some objects outside the galaxy, but never in such a distant place. He warned, however, that the finding does not mean life is present there or about to be.
"What we see is a bunch of building blocks," he said. "So predicting life on the basis of the evidence we have now, I think, is going very far out on a limb. But we're ahead of the game. We found the molecules are present."
Another dramatic Spitzer space telescope image shows stars forming in a spiral galaxy very much like ours 12 million light years away in the Big Dipper constellation. Interstellar dust normally obscures the process to observatories using visible light. But Giovanni Fazio says these images give an unprecedented internal view of the galaxy.
"Believe me, we have never seen a picture like this before, and the best is yet to come," he said. "For the first time, the Spitzer space telescope allows us to dissect a galaxy into its component parts. This is something we have never been able to do before and it will change the way we classify galaxies."
The astronomers who gathered at NASA's Washington headquarters showed other Spitzer telescope images that demonstrate the power of the instrument to capture cosmic features never seen before. One featured a disc of dust coalescing into planets around the star Fomalhaut, one of the brightest in the sky at 25 light years away.
"I am thrilled to see pictures of debris from which real planets are forming," said John Bahcall of Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study. He notes that the Spitzer observatory complements telescopes that cover other parts of the light spectrum, including the orbiting Hubble and Chandra observatories, which see in the visible and x-ray wavelengths respectively.
"The Spitzer space telescope will change the way astronomers do astronomy," he said. "Beginning today for astronomers, it will no longer be possible to characterize an astronomical system by its optical light or by its ultraviolet light or by its x-ray light or by its gamma ray light. In order to understand how things operate in the heavens, we will need all of the colors."
James Houck of Cornell University says the telescope's extreme sensitivity-100 to 1,000 times more powerful than previous orbiting infrared telescopes, will keep astronomers busy for years to come.
"We can expect a flood of discovery over the next five years a flood!," he said.