James Webb Space Telescope reveals ice structure in interstellar space

Using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), researchers from various research institutes including from Radboud University have made a groundbreaking discovery involving the molecular structure of ice in space. For the first time, scientists have observed the 'dangling OH peak’. This peak is usually attributed to water molecules with an H-atom sticking out of a water ice surface and the observation of dangling OH peak suggests that that the surface area of interstellar ice is much larger than expected. This discovery creates new puzzles for the understanding ice in the universe, which are the building blocks for comets and other icy bodies. The findings have recently been published in Nature Astronomy.

Peak in spectra

The state-of-the-art infrared JWST has identified dangling OH peaks in the spectral data in several different sources. These are indicative for surface water molecules and indicate that the ice in space has a much larger surface area than expected. There are some explanations for these observations: porous ice with extensive surfaces or numerous small ice particles with substantial surface exposure. First author of the article is CNRS researcher Jenny Noble, researcher in the Physics of Ion and Molecular Interactions Laboratory and Aix-Marseille University (France).

Push the boundaries 

Scientists from the Institute for Molecules and Materials (IMM) of Radboud University have collaborated to interpret these observations. The findings push the boundaries of the current understanding of ice structures in space and provide an unique opportunity to explore these fundamental molecular processes. “To detect and analyze such detailed spectral features will increase our understanding of the molecular structures of in interstellar space. It is amazing to realize that we can get detailed molecular information about ice that is such a vast distance away”, Prof. Herma Cuppen says. 

In new projects, researchers will study the observations further. Simulations and theoretical models are being used to explore the molecular structures and the conditions that have led to this unexpected observations.

James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is world's premier space science observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. It is a large infrared telescope with an approximately 6.5-meter primary mirror, to study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System. JWST is an international collaboration between NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

Explaining properties of molecules

Professor Herma Cuppen leads the Theoretical and Computational Chemistry group, which is part of IMM. The group tries to explain and predict properties of molecules, clusters and molecular solids with quantum mechanical, semiclassical, classical and statistical mechanical methods.

© SWRI, AJ Galaviz III, JA Noble, D Qasim. Noble et al. Nature Astronomy 2024, doi: 10.1038/s41550-024-02307-7.
© SWRI, AJ Galaviz III, JA Noble, D Qasim. Noble et al. Nature Astronomy 2024, doi: 10.1038/s41550-024-02307-7.
Literature reference

Noble et al. 
Detection of the elusive dangling OH ice features at ∼ 2.7 μm in Chamaeleon I with JWST NIRCam
Nature Astronomy 2024
doi: 10.1038/s41550-024-02307-

Contact information

Jenny Noble, jennifer.noble [at]
Herma Cuppen, herma.cuppen [at]

Innovation, Molecules and materials, Universe, Science