Planetary Radio • Jun 14, 2023

The oldest organic molecules in the known Universe

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Justin Spilker

Assistant Professor of Astronomy at Texas A&M University

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Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society

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Sarah Al-Ahmed

Planetary Radio Host and Producer for The Planetary Society

Justin Spilker and his colleagues at Texas A&M University have detected the oldest and most distant organic molecules in the known Universe using the James Webb Space Telescope. Justin joins Planetary Radio to talk about the discovery and what it means for our understanding of star formation in the early Universe. We also share what to spot in the night sky this week and pay homage to the first women in space in this week’s What’s Up.

Galaxy SPT0418-47
Galaxy SPT0418-47 Astronomers using JWST detected the oldest and most distant complex organic molecules yet in the galaxy SPT0418-47. The galaxy is over twelve billion light-years away but from our perspective on Earth, it is directly behind a foreground galaxy that is only three billion light-years away. The light from the more distant galaxy is bent by the gravity of the galaxy in front of it, creating this beautiful gravitationally lensed image. When the light of an object is bent in such a way that it creates a full circle in an astronomical image, as is the case here, it’s called an Einstein ring.Image: J. Spilker / S. Doyle, NASA, ESA, CSA
SPT0418-47 Einstein ring diagram
SPT0418-47 Einstein ring diagram Observations of the galaxy SPT0418-47 display a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing. This diagram shows how a closer galaxy between Earth and SPT0418-47 bends the light of the more distant galaxy into a beautiful circle known as an Einstein ring.Image: S. Doyle / J. Spilker
The Sky is Not the Limit book cover
The Sky is Not the Limit book cover The cover for The Sky is Not the Limit by Jeremie Decalf.Image: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

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Sarah Al-Ahmed: Scientists detect complex organic molecules more than 12 billion light years away. This week on Planetary Radio. I'm Sarah Al-Ahmed of The Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our solar system and beyond. A team of researchers using the James Webb Space Telescope have detected the most distant organic molecules yet in a galaxy called SPT0418-47. Justin Spilker, who's the lead author on this study, joins us this week to talk about his team's findings and what it means for our understanding of star formation in the early universe. Then Bruce Betts and I will share what's going to happen in the upcoming night sky. We'll also share an opportunity for you to win a beautiful kid's book about the Voyager 2 spacecraft. You can win that in our space trivia contest. But first, let's take a chomp out of this week's space news. Everyone knows that fried food is the key to happiness, even for astronauts. Researchers from the University of Thessaloniki in Greece have found that it's possible to fry food in microgravity. That means that future astronauts will get the chance to eat all of their favorite comfort foods, even when they're exploring the cosmos. I'm just thinking about how satisfyingly crunchy a fried mozzarella stick would be when you're looking down at the earth from orbit. The only tricky part there would be making sure that all the sauces don't float away. And good news everyone, the Psyche mission is officially back on track. The mission to the metallic asteroid of the same name faced some major setbacks that caused it to miss its original launch date back in 2022. But NASA says that the mission team has been making outstanding progress and the spacecraft is expected to meet its new launch date in October 2023. I'm really glad to hear it. The team has been through a lot in recent years. I mean, we all have, but it sounds like they've been working really hard to get that mission back on track. Not all heroes wear capes is all I'm saying. If you're curious about the Psyche mission and that whole story, I had the chance to talk to the principal investigator for the mission, Lindy Elkins-Tanton back in March. You can hear our conversation in the Planetary Radio episode called Getting Psyched for Psyche. And if you're a university or college student that's inspired by the Psyche mission, NASA wants to hear from you. The Psyche Inspired Program brings undergraduate students from any discipline or major together to share the excitement and the innovation of NASA's Psyche mission with the public. And that can be done in several ways through different artistic means and creative works. Applications for the 2023 to 2024 academic year are now open. You can learn more about this in the June 9th edition of our weekly newsletter, The Downlink. Read it or subscribe to have it sent to your inbox for free every Friday at This week's guest is Dr. Justin Spilker, an assistant professor of astronomy at Texas A&M University. He's the lead author on a new paper published in Nature. He and his colleagues use the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, to detect the farthest known organic molecules in the universe. They're in a galaxy, which is more than 12 light years away. The galaxy was originally discovered by the National Science Foundation's South Pole Telescope in 2013. Observatories, radio telescopes, the Hubble Space Telescope, and now JWST, have observed this galaxy. Justin's team explored the composition of this galaxy with the help of JWST, and this story gets more interesting the deeper you look into it. We'll discuss some of the processes that create organic molecules in space. We're also going to get into how gravitational lensing can help us study the early universe and what this discovery means for our understanding of star formation. Hi, Justin. Thanks for being here.

Justin Spilker: Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Congrats to you and your team on this discovery. This is such a cool finding.

Justin Spilker: Thanks so much. It's been a lot of fun to work on it.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Have the days since this news went out to the world been a little hectic? I mean, I imagine with all the articles I've been seeing coming through my feed that you might be getting bombarded.

Justin Spilker: It was a little interesting. I was actually on vacation when the article came out, so it's been kind of a little bit of a whirlwind. But you know, you can't stay on the beach for the whole week, you have to have a little bit of time staring at a computer screen.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I mean, you could or bring the computer with you to the beach. No, that won't work. I was looking at your bio while I was researching you and all of this discovery and talking about the computer. You say in your bio that you were going to become an engineer, and then you thought, "That's too practical for me," and decided to go into astrophysics. Were you like, "Putting resistors into a breadboard is cool, but maybe I should focus on questions that I might not know the answer to in my lifetime"? How did that happen?

Justin Spilker: When I was a freshman in undergrad, I realized that in my spring semester of freshman year, the only engineering class I was in that semester, we were going to spend the entire time talking about the flow of fluids through pipes. And now, you look back at that and it's like, "Oh, of course. Well, if you want to know how an airplane flies, you should probably know something about fluids." But at the time I was like, "Oh my gosh, what have I got myself into? I cannot imagine doing this." And so I kind of casted around for a couple years trying to figure out what on earth I should do with my life and just kind of happened to stumble into a summer research project in astronomy, and had such a great time that summer that I figured I would try to keep doing it for as long as somebody was willing to pay me to do it. And here we are today, so so far so good.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And you ended up focusing on a really interesting topic, which is not just one particular type of star or galaxy, but more so how star formation changes over the history of the universe. Why is that the topic that you found so fascinating?

Justin Spilker: I feel like that was a little bit of luck and maybe some navigation as well. I think of this a little bit as like you go to your family reunion and you take a big group picture, and so you have everybody in that picture. You have your grandparents, the oldest people in your family, you have your aunts and uncles, you have your cousins in that same picture too. I kind of think of studying galaxies in that similar way where we look out at the universe and you take an image of the sky and you see a whole field of galaxies that are all at different distances from us. And the cool part is that since it takes time for light to travel to us, the farthest away galaxies that we're seeing are also much younger because it took much longer for their light to travel to us. And so basically anytime you take a picture of a field of galaxies, you're seeing that same kind of family reunion-style picture where you have some baby galaxies and you have some aunt and uncle galaxies, and you have some older grandparent galaxies that are much closer to us. We're seeing them basically as they are today. And so I always just kind of found that to be pretty fascinating and I think we've had a lot of success as well with these kinds of new telescopes that have been coming online in the last few years that have really just made this field kind of explode. So there's so many things that we can do now that were just completely impossible a decade ago.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I love that description of thinking of these as different members in the family of galaxies. Now I've got this mental image of the spicy teenager galaxies just trying to figure itself out.

Justin Spilker: That's right.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: A lot of astrophysicists end up specializing in observing the universe and a particular wavelength of light, so they can specialize in one thing, but in order to learn more about the universe over time, you've had to learn to be a multi-wavelength observational astrophysicist. What does that mean and how does that let you do this kind of science?

Justin Spilker: When I first started working in astronomy, I primarily did radio astronomy. So we used basically your satellite TV dishes, but much, much, much bigger to study the universe that way. And the reason that we like doing that is because the radio telescopes, you look out at the night sky with your eyes and you see a bunch of stars and you're seeing those stars because they're hot. They're hot, and so they're glowing very brightly in colors of light that your eyes can see. But as you go to a radio light, radio wavelengths of light, you're seeing objects that are much, much colder. So things that are only maybe 10 degrees above absolute zero, the very, very cold universe. But since then I've kind of been trying to branch out a little bit into this kind of more multi-wavelength picture like you mentioned. And the part that I really like about that is that it kind of lets us piece together a whole bunch of different building blocks to get a really comprehensive picture of what galaxies are doing. If you look with radio telescopes, you see the cold universe. If you look with visible light telescopes like Hubble, then you can see things that are a few thousand degrees in temperature. And you look with Webb and you see things that are kind of in between there. So it's really only kind of when you have this whole big pile of Legos jumbled together and you have all of them at once, then you can finally start putting them together into whatever it is that you're going to try to build.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And you just mentioned this a little bit ago that this kind of discovery is really only possible because of new telescopes and new technology, particularly the James Webb Space Telescope. I'm even right now wearing a necklace with the JWST mirror on it.

Justin Spilker: I see that. Well, it's really cool.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I loved the idea of this telescope even when I was a small child, when I first heard it took so long for this telescope to come out, but the results are absolutely mind-blowing. Did you know that you were going to want to use JWST for this at some point? Were you waiting around for years for it or did you decide to do this science because it was now possible?

Justin Spilker: Oh, I've been looking forward to this for a long time too. I'm now a professor of astronomy, I've been a professor for about two years now, and actually we wrote the original proposal to use the Webb telescope for this project when I was still a PhD student.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yes, that's awesome.

Justin Spilker: I distinctly remember sitting in a hotel room in Flagstaff, Arizona trying to work on our text at the time. And so we've really been looking forward to getting to do this kind of science for a long time and I was super happy and super excited to be part of the team that got to do this.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: What is it about JWST and its instruments that allow us to finally do this early universe science that we couldn't do before?

Justin Spilker: So it's a combination of two things, I would say. One is just that JWST is way bigger than our previous telescopes at this wavelength. You can imagine like if it's raining outside and you want to catch some rain, it works better if you have a big wide pan compared to some tiny little rain gauge. And so JWST kind of acts like a big light bucket for us in that sense if you just want to get as much light from space as possible. And the other thing that really makes this really exciting is that Webb observes infrared light. So Hubble basically stops a little bit after we go into the infrared, so light that's just a little bit more red than the red that your eyes can see. Webb was designed and built to be sensitive to wavelengths of light that are much redder than our eyes can see. And so that kind of gets you into the cool temperatures of the universe. And the other reason that helps us out a lot is that since the universe has been expanding, while light travels to us, its wavelengths kind of get stretched to longer and longer, bigger and bigger wavelengths. And so if you want to see things in the very distant universe, you have to go to these sorts of infrared wavelengths of light, and that's what Webb has really been designed and built to do. So it's really exciting to use it.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I think too, what's really cool about this telescope is is not even just that it allows us to really get that infrared light from the early universe, but also analyze it with a spectrometer to kind of tell what's actually going on chemically there. That's the same kind of science that allows us to look at atmospheres, but in this case it's letting us do something completely wild, like detect complex organic molecules in the early universe. That's so cool.

Justin Spilker: Yeah, absolutely. It's I think a testament to how versatile the telescope is, it has all of these different ways that it can look at the universe. You can just go out and take an image, take a picture of the universe in some particular color of light, or you can do like you say, where you have a spectrum where you break up the different colors of light into their individual little colors and actually get to analyze something about the composition of atmospheres of planets around other stars or detect molecules in the early universe, or find evidence of stars that don't really exist today in galaxies that existed at the dawn of time. I think this is just a really amazing and fantastically capable telescope and it's really cool for that reason, I think too.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, although I did read recently that part of what makes this discovery so cool is that the spectrometer onboard JWST has been encountering some degradation over time recently. What is going on there? What do we know about that?

Justin Spilker: I think we still don't have a great sense of what's happening, but basically the one instrument that we use, which is Webb's Mid-Infrared Instrument, it observes the farthest into the infrared out of any of Webb's instruments, seems to be having some issues with its sensitivity. So for some reason its performance has been kind of degrading a little bit over time, especially as you go as far into the infrared as it can go. I don't think we'd know yet why that's actually happening, but NASA has a really fantastic team of engineers who are basically looking at every possible component of this instrument to try to figure out what has happened, and is there any way that we can fix it or get around the issue? Is there anything that we can do? And so I think at this point we just have to give them the chance to try to figure out what's happening.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: People who are listening to this right now might be a little confused because we've been talking about star formation and all these things, but the headline is about detection of organic molecules in the universe. How do those two ideas connect together?

Justin Spilker: So we decided to look for these really big, floppy molecules that we call, I apologize for this mouthful, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Easy. Rolls right off the tongue.

Justin Spilker: Yeah. But the basic idea of these molecules is that if you kind of imagine a bunch of carbon atoms, they kind of arrange themselves into this grid that looks like a honeycomb pattern, so a whole bunch of hexagons kind of tiled next to each other in that honeycomb kind of pattern. And so while you might think of molecules as things like water, H2O, that have three atoms on them, these hydrocarbons, these complex organic molecules can have hundreds or even thousands of atoms on them. So they're really large, almost macroscopic kind of molecules. And so those are actually kind of the biggest molecules that we can see in space. We can see them in our own Milky Way galaxy, we can see them in nearby galaxies. And now with Webb, we can also see them in galaxies really early in the history of the universe as well.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: What is it about this kind of complex organic molecule that indicates star formation or lack thereof? This gets a little weird as we get deeper into it, but we'll start simple.

Justin Spilker: Yeah. I would say it's not even a simple question, it's really kind of a deep question in some ways. The gist of the argument goes that the most massive stars, the biggest stars, the ones that are much bigger than our own sun, only live for very, very short lives. So they basically live fast and die young. And when you have a star that is this big, they glow very brightly in ultraviolet light, so they're much hotter than our own sun. And so they go from red-hot, to white-hot, to blue-hot, to ultraviolet-hot. They just get to that high of a temperature. And so the thing about these molecules, these organic molecules, is that they eat ultraviolet light for breakfast. They love to devour ultraviolet photons. And so when that happens, they basically suck in one of these ultraviolet photons and then they kind of have to shake it out. And so they basically flop around a little bit and every time they flop a little, they give off an infrared photon in exchange. And so basically the reason that we think that these molecules tell us something about star formation is that we only see them because they are close to a star that is giving off ultraviolet light, and the stars that give off ultraviolet light are only the youngest stars, the ones that have just recently been born.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's interesting because when people think organic molecules, they're usually thinking about its connection with life and what that means. But in this case, it actually allows us to know something completely unrelated to life, really, about the history of star formation over time. What are some examples on earth of places that we find these polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or we'll just call them PAHs, or maybe PAHs? I don't know how people pronounce that.

Justin Spilker: Yeah. I've heard both, so I think it's okay to say either way. Yeah, these molecules do exist on earth. They mostly exist here in ways that are really not very pleasant, so we primarily interact with them in the form of things like smog, and soot, and smoke. So all of you on the East Coast right now, if you step outside, you will be breathing in some of these molecules. I do not recommend it. They are definitely carcinogenic, they can give you cancer if you breathe them too much. While they're kind of associated with burning on earth, they're not necessarily associated with literal fire in space. We don't necessarily know how these molecules are able to form in space. They have so many atoms, they grow very, very large, they're really fragile in some ways, and so it seems like they should be easy to break apart because they're just so big. And so we don't necessarily know where they come from in space, but we are pretty sure it's not signs of some kind of ecological catastrophe in space. We think that they're just kind of a natural consequence of the ways that galaxies form and evolve, that these molecules can basically assemble themselves out even in the depths of space.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Which is mind-blowing in and of itself. We find organic compounds all over our solar system and in other places, but they're chunky, they're really complex. The idea that they could form just willy-nilly in space is cool and bodes well for putting all these organic compounds on planets all across the universe. Maybe it does have some bearing on the idea of life in the universe and we just haven't connected it all together yet. It's really interesting.

Justin Spilker: Yeah, I totally agree. It's kind of wild to think about, but we're seeing these really large molecules even when the universe was very young. And so to me, I think that means that it's not that hard to make these kinds of big, complicated compounds. These aren't necessarily associated with life, but things that you could imagine are more closely related to life, things like very simple sugars or amino acids. If we can make these kinds of atoms, these kinds of molecules, even when the universe was young, I think there is maybe some really indirect tangential commentary to be made there on how easy or hard it might be for life to arise in the universe.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah. I mean, part of what we do with The Planetary Society is try to help enable this search for life, so the more information we can get about this the better because it's such a deep, profound mystery, and another one of those that we might not get the answer to in our lifetime, but I like to think we will have the answers someday. In this case, you weren't just looking at any random galaxy. You were looking at a specific galaxy called SPT0418-47. First I have to ask, do you have a short name that your team uses to talk about this?

Justin Spilker: No. Yeah, we just use the phone number. I don't know. Maybe that's our fault for the lack of marketing skill, but the phone number is what we got.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah. But why was this the particular galaxy that you were looking at for this study?

Justin Spilker: Yeah. This galaxy has actually been a long time favorite of mine. And I know it sounds silly to say in a universe of trillions of galaxies, that one is my favorite, but this one has got to be up there high on the list. And the reason that we picked this one in particular is because it has been what we call gravitationally lensed. This is something that happens when you basically have two galaxies that are almost perfectly lined up with each other from our point of view here on earth, basically you have a galaxy that's close to us. In this case, we have one that's only 3 billion light years away.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Only.

Justin Spilker: Exactly, only 3 billion. And then directly behind that is one that's about 12 billion light years away. And while you might normally think of on earth, if you have something that's kind of lined up, you can't see the thing that's behind it. I can't see what's behind my computer screen right now, I can't see through it. If you have a galaxy that's very large, its gravity can actually bend the light that's coming from the galaxy behind it. And so instead of getting blocked by that foreground galaxy, the light actually goes around that foreground galaxy. And when that happens, it actually gets to be magnified and stretched out. And so what that means is that the galaxy that's in the background, that's the one that's further away, looks like it's 30 times brighter than it actually is, and so that makes it much easier for our telescopes to look at it. So anytime something looks brighter, we don't have to stare as long. Even with a telescope that's as big as Webb, we would have to look for a long time to study a galaxy like this. And so it just makes some of these kinds of studies where you're looking for very faint things, very small things. It makes those a lot easier.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: We'll be right back with the rest of my interview with Justin Spilker after the short break.

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Sarah Al-Ahmed: In the actual imagery, does this gravitationally-lensed galaxy look like a little arc or is it a full Einstein ring kind of situation?

Justin Spilker: Yeah. So this one is a full Einstein ring, so it basically looks like we can see the foreground galaxy, which is kind of blue, which is mostly because it's closer to us. And then that galaxy in the background has been stretched out into a ring shape. It looks like the Eye of Sauron or something.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It kind of does.

Justin Spilker: And that happens when the two galaxies are basically dead on, perfectly aligned with each other. You can fill out that whole Einstein ring.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Listeners of the show will know. We did a trivia question specifically about these Einstein rings recently. They're so awesome, so any excuse I have to share a picture of this, I always do. So I will put a picture of this really cool Einstein ring on the website for this episode of Planetary Radio. If you want to check it out, it'll be at These kinds of images, I think about how it's not that long ago that we didn't really understand how gravity warps space and time. We still don't fully understand how all these things connect together, but then you see a picture like this one, where a galaxy that far away, 12 billion light years away, is just turning into this beautiful ring in space from our perspective. The fact that this is 12 billion light years away, what does that mean for its age on the scale of the universe?

Justin Spilker: So that means that we're seeing this galaxy, its light started traveling to us 12 billion years ago, and so we're seeing the galaxy as it was when the universe was only about one and a half billion years old, which is about 10% of the universe's current age. So it's kind of like if you put that on human terms, it's kind of seeing an eight-year old in comparison to your great-grandparents. And so we're really seeing this galaxy when it was in elementary school, I would say. It's discovered Pokemon cards for the first time, not to use a personal example.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That I deeply relate to. Don't even get me started on that one, but that's a really cool context because at that point in the universe, we want to know more about how fast stars form, how fast galaxies form. The data that we're getting out of this telescope about that point in time is a little weird, it's not what we expected. This galaxy has been forming stars much faster than we expected at that age, right?

Justin Spilker: Yeah, that's true. So we can actually find galaxies that seem to be forming stars hundreds or thousands of times faster than our own Milky Way galaxy is today. So right now, the Milky Way is making basically about one sun's worth of stars every year, but the galaxy that we studied here is forming like 250, and there are other galaxies at that same time that were forming 1,500 stars per year, sun's worth of stars every year. And so it seems like it's possible for galaxies to just go super into overdrive where they're just really growing very, very fast. And we don't necessarily know what allows that to happen, we don't really see galaxies that are growing that quickly today, so it seems like now the universe is kind of in more of the adulthood phase where we've got our act together and we're just kind of cruising along at this more sedate speed. But it seems like at least at early times, the universe was able to form galaxies very, very fast.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I'm not super surprised about this because in the early universe, literally the universe hadn't expanded as much as it is now, so things were closer together and there was just a lot of hydrogen. There's still a lot of hydrogen, honestly, but there were less metals. And in astronomy, when we say metals, it's literally anything more complex than hydrogen and helium, so take that with a grain of salt, but I am wondering, it would probably be hard to tell because this is a gravitationally-lensed object, but do we know anything about the scale of this galaxy, how big it is versus our Milky Way or what its metallicity is?

Justin Spilker: Yeah, we actually do know that fairly well from previous observations. So in the past we've used observations from a telescope, a radio telescope called ALMA, which is in the Chilean Andes. And using that data from that telescope, we were able to find that the size of this galaxy is only a few thousand light years, and that might still sound incomprehensibly gigantic.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: But compared to the Milky Way, I mean-

Justin Spilker: Exactly. It's much smaller than the Milky Way is. Nevertheless, it seems like this galaxy is almost as massive as the Milky Way is today.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Wow.

Justin Spilker: It also seems to have about the same concentration of those heavier elements, things like carbon and oxygen as our Milky Way does now. And so it really seems like for an eight-year-old, this galaxy has already gone to college, it's already had its career, it's already retired. It seems like it's basically gone through all of these stages of life much, much faster than our own Milky Way galaxy has.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And that's interesting because in order to understand why that is, we would need to know what was going on even deeper back in time and try to figure out what was going on there. Because in order to produce these more heavy elements, these stars have to basically live fast, die young, explode, put all that stuff out into the universe for these new stars to then pick up that leftover mass and form. Is it possible for us to even look further back and try to do that study? I mean, we'd have to have a really weird, even wilder gravitational lens situation to do that, right?

Justin Spilker: Yeah, it gets more and more challenging the further back you go, but that is definitely something that I'm interested in. I think the fact that we can find these really complex molecules in the galaxy that we did, which is one and a half billion years after the Big Bang, tells you that it can't be that hard for the universe to make these, but I think the earlier and earlier you go, the more challenging it must be to make such complicated molecules. And so I would really like to look for these kinds of molecules in galaxies that are so young that maybe the universe just hasn't had enough time to make them yet. And so there are a couple good plausible choices I'm kicking around in my head, so maybe we will have more to come in the future on that point. But yeah, I think it's definitely going to be challenging because you're looking at galaxies that are just farther and farther away, and so they get fainter and fainter, and so it just gets more challenging even with a telescope like Webb.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Maybe one of these days we'll have a whole fleet of Webb-style telescopes working together to try to figure this out because you can't just keep making the telescope bigger and bigger, you might need to do some interferometry or something.

Justin Spilker: There you go, call your congressperson.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Honestly though, we'll get to that after trying to save VERITAS and Mars Sample Return, and all those other things, but it's a great point. We will need to advocate for these kinds of things, just the way that we had to advocate for keeping the funding for JWST in the past. And thankfully it worked and here we are, so it works out.

Justin Spilker: Absolutely.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I think something that was a little interesting when I was reading through this paper was that we usually associate these kinds of PAHs with star formation, but you found some of these same compounds in places where star formation wasn't. What's Going on there?

Justin Spilker: Yeah, we honestly don't know. We had kind of thought of these molecules in a little bit of a where there's smoke, there's fire kind of way. It seems like we had thought that anywhere that you had young stars just blazing away that we would also see these molecules. That seems to be true in galaxies that are close to our own Milky Way, and so we had expected that that would still be true even when the universe was young. But kind of like you mentioned, we found that there were some regions where there are stars forming, but we didn't see any of these molecules, and we saw some regions where we saw these molecules, but there wasn't necessarily a lot of star formation going on there. And we actually don't know why that's happening. It could be that the molecules were destroyed, so they are very large and floppy, and so if you have, for example, a shock wave from a supernova explosion passed by, maybe that's enough to blast these molecules into pieces. Or it could be that maybe there just hasn't been enough time for these molecules to form, maybe they weren't protected, they weren't shielded enough from the harsh environment of the galaxy around them in order to actually grow large enough to be these complex organic molecules. We don't necessarily know what's going on with that picture yet, so the jury's still out. I think we've got a lot of work yet to do with Webb, and so my hope is that by the time we, if we talked about this again in five years, we'll have a much better idea of just how do these molecules relate to star formation or why don't they relate to star formation at some times?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, that's an interesting point because we're drawing a connection here, assuming that these kinds of organic molecules directly indicate star formation, but it could be more complex than that and alter our understanding of what this means for the star formation rate. The fact that we can have this conversation at all at this point is so cool.

Justin Spilker: Yeah, I agree. It's been a whole lot of fun to work on this with the Webb telescope, and this is exactly the kind of thing that our program on Webb was designed to do. This particular result was only one small piece of what we originally set out to do. So our program, which is an acronym called TEMPLATES, it's really contrived, so I will spare you the egregious use of an acronym here. We had basically set out to say, "Okay, well, there are a whole bunch of different ways that astronomers try to use to figure out how fast galaxies are making new stars." And so with Webb, we can use a lot of those same techniques in the same galaxies. So our whole program was designed around this idea of saying, "Okay, let's go and observe all of the most common ways, let's observe all of the different things, and then compare them to each other. Which ones are good, which ones are bad? If they agree with each other, that's great. If they don't agree with each other, can we figure out why?" And so it seems like these molecules might work on kind of a large scale, basically if you average in together the places in the galaxy where we found the molecules along with the places where we didn't, it seems like you get roughly the right answer. But if you look in more detail, it seems like, well, there are some places where there are stars forming that we don't see molecules. Why is that? We don't necessarily know that yet.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It sounds like, you obviously have plans for observing other galaxies to try to add to this data, but is this the kind of situation where you found such an interesting result with this first one that despite having other observations already, you just had to put it out there or are you not there yet, have you not observed the other galaxies in the study yet?

Justin Spilker: Our program was one of the very first ones to be selected for observation on the telescope.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Congratulations too, because that's a huge thing all on its own.

Justin Spilker: Thank you. Yeah, it was really exciting to get that email for sure. And what that means is that in exchange for that prime position, our team has been tasked with basically trying to figure out all of the weird quirks and problems, and issues, and other unexpected problems that were coming down from the data from Webb and see if we could do anything about them. So basically, could we identify any problems and then fix them? That was kind of the bargain that we struck in order to get this program to be observed very early. I did a lot of the work for this particular result, and we have a lot of other team members who are working on other aspects of the data using other instruments and using other observing modes with the idea being that once we are confident in what we've done, we can give all of our software, we can tell everybody else what we did, what worked, what didn't work, and then hopefully improve the science that everybody else in the community can do as well. It's been really exciting and a little bit of a public service there as well for us, I think, which makes you feel fuzzy inside.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Absolutely. It's lovely too that we can actually start sharing not just our data, but our algorithms and our ways of processing data. That's been a really cool result to see over the last decade really grow because back in my day, now, I'm not that old, but even then we were using not the most modern technology to do our research, not the most modern coding, not the most modern anything really. And seeing it progress so far and now seeing everyone go to these conferences and talk about their algorithms is really cool.

Justin Spilker: And I think full credit to the astronomical community, I think this idea of being very open about how and what we do with our data processing has been something that's really taken root within our community over the last five or 10 years. And so a whole lot of really pioneering folks who were super gung ho in favor of making their software open source, that has really taken the community by storm. And so I think we're kind of leading in some ways compared to other fields, and I would like to see that continue as well.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Absolutely. It makes a huge difference. And now even an undergrad can just pull the data from JWST off the internet, pull some cool processing stuff from, I don't know, GitHub or any other repository where it's kept, and just do that science all on their own. It's a new world.

Justin Spilker: Yeah, absolutely.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: We used to fight over data in our research projects, but have you been approved for the observation time for any of your other galaxies that you want to look at for this study?

Justin Spilker: Yeah, absolutely. So in fact, I just woke up to the email today that was saying that the last data from this program was just taken.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Awesome.

Justin Spilker: Yeah, exactly. So it's been a long time coming, so I think we're finally going to be complete on this particular program. And then I'm involved in a couple of other programs as well that are going to be happening over the next year, and so really looking forward to getting to understand the real details of how galaxies work using Webb.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: What more information do you feel like you need to understand this more deeply? How many observations would you need to feel satisfied?

Justin Spilker: All of them, of course.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: All of them.

Justin Spilker: There's never enough.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Ain't that the truth though? It's a huge universe. We could literally spend infinite time and never get it all done. How big is your research team?

Justin Spilker: I am a new professor, so we're still kind of growing. So I have a couple of postdoctoral researchers who are working with me and who are also working on this Webb team with me, Jack Birkin and Grace Olivier. They both got their PhDs about a year ago and then joined my team to help work on this Webb program. And then I also have a PhD student who has just started a year ago, as well as a handful of undergrads who are working on different levels of projects, so really trying to come up with a range of projects that are kind of suited to the level of experience that folks come to the group with.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's so cool. I would've lost my mind as an undergrad if I could have done this kind of research, but back then we were still trying to find exoplanets, one planet, one transit, one telescope observation night at a time, so it's really interesting to see how far we've come in just a few years.

Justin Spilker: Absolutely.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah. I wish we could have JWST forever. If you weren't studying star formation over the history of the universe, is there any other big deep question that you might want to study?

Justin Spilker: I have always found the Cosmic Microwave Background to be pretty interesting in a lot of ways because it's kind of the polar opposite of studying galaxies. So galaxies are great, big, beautiful messes. It's like you take a bunch of stuff, a bunch of gas, a bunch of stars, a bunch of dust, throw it all on a blender and you never get the same thing twice. And the Cosmic Microwave Background is kind of the opposite of that, where it's light that is traveling to us from a time when the universe had no galaxies, it was much smoother. And so it's really kind of beautiful in its simplicity in a lot of ways. It was really just kind of set by the fundamental physics that existed at that time. You didn't have all the mess that went along with taking gas and stars and dust and mixing them all together in different proportions. So I've always thought that was kind of a really beautiful physical system that's really kind of interesting to study on its own as well.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, thanks for being here with us, but also for doing this kind of research because I'm deeply fascinated by this, but I think a lot of other people are understanding how the universe went from the beginning to where we are today, and its beautiful complexity, and how all these stars formed, and with what rapidity? It's such an interesting question and it's a hard one to answer at this point in time in the universe when we're just barely learning about how everything works and just beginning to have the instruments to do it.

Justin Spilker: Yeah, absolutely. I feel very lucky to be on the team that got to do these observations. I feel very lucky to be surrounded by a whole bunch of astronomers that I admire and respect, and so it's been a really fun experience for me as well from that perspective.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And I'm sure it'll get even cooler as you get more data, it'll become even more fascinating and probably throw you some more loops that we didn't expect.

Justin Spilker: I hope so.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's always the best way. Well, thanks for being here, Justin.

Justin Spilker: Yeah, thank you so much.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Do you ever just wish that you had a time-traveling spaceship or something you could use to just pop back in time and help solve these mysteries? I think about it all the time. If you'd like to check out this team's findings and their paper, it's called Spatial Variation in Aromatic Hydrocarbon Emission in a Dust-Rich Galaxy, which was published in Nature. You definitely won't be able to spot this galaxy with the naked eye, but there are plenty of other beautiful shiny things in the upcoming night sky this week. Let's check in with Bruce Betts, the chief scientist of The Planetary Society for what's up. Hey Bruce, good to see you.

Bruce Betts: Hey, Sarah. Good to see you. How you doing?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Doing good. Good to be back. Also, just it's my birthday, so another trip around the sun completed.

Bruce Betts: Happy trip around the sun. I arranged this time to have bright Venus, super bright Venus, over in the West after sunset in your honor.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Just for me.

Bruce Betts: So go out, check it out tonight and know that it's my birthday present to you. It's the one that I got you.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Thank you.

Bruce Betts: Anyway, Venus is super bright, still there, it's going to start dropping over the coming weeks, so enjoy it, enjoy it now. A reddish Mars, much dimmer these days, and it's sort of nearby. On the 21st, June 21st the evening, look over there and you'll see a nice triple play. We've got the crescent moon hanging out near super bright Venus and reddish Mars, much dimmer, but a cool little triumph for it. Okay. Anyway, it's trio.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Triforce.

Bruce Betts: Trifoil.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Triad.

Bruce Betts: There are three of them. All right, sorry. I apologize, everyone. Moving on to the pre-dawn, which apparently is a thing if you're up before dawn or stay up all night as certain Planetary Radio hosts do on occasion while listening to music. And you can look over in the east and you can see Saturn quite high up looking yellowish and really bright Jupiter now is pretty easy to see down low in the east before dawn and that's good stuff. And by the way, in the evening, Mars and Venus getting closer, they'll be not snuggling, but at least saying hi at the beginning of July.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I'm going to have to make sure I actually go outside and see that pre-one sky after all night binging the new Zelda Tears of the Kingdom game. I anticipate a lot of sleepless nights in my future.

Bruce Betts: Zelda. Zelda is still around.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, just watch out for those blood moons is all I'm saying.

Bruce Betts: Okay. Wait, that's probably a game reference, but okay.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: You get it, Bruce.

Bruce Betts: I get it, I just am not familiar with that game yet.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yet. It's going to happen, it'll eat your life too.

Bruce Betts: Yay.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: As it has with all of us.

Bruce Betts: Speaking of eating your life or nothing at all related, onto this week in space history, it is the, hard to believe, I guess, it's the 60th anniversary of the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, 1963 this week became the first woman in space. And 20 years later, the 40th anniversary this week of the first American woman in space, Sally Ride.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's so cool. 60 years. Wow.

Bruce Betts: Yeah, 1963 and I think it's somehow 60 years since then, but I was a math major, I don't know how to use numbers anymore. We move on to Random Space Fact. The first woman to fly in space, I don't know if you knew this, Valentina Tereshkova, but that of course is not enough for your Random Space Fact. The Random Space Fact is she was a textile factory worker before she was selected.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's awesome.

Bruce Betts: It is. Well, they thought it was, and unlike all the others in the program at the time were male pilots, she was selected with several other women, and according to that internet thing was chosen for propaganda value, her devotion to the Communist party, which she has definitely shown since then, in her years of experience in sport parachuting, that part was important because she was flying at a time where they still, despite the fact that they hid this from the world for quite a while, didn't land in the spacecraft, but exited the spacecraft several kilometers up and parachuted down for the last part of the journey because they hadn't figured out how to safely softly land them on the surface. She was Vostok 6, very exciting.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: As if going to space wasn't harrowing enough, you come back in and then you got to eject and parachute your way out? What?

Bruce Betts: Yeah, they didn't do it the easy way. That's for sure. Yeah. And not that there is an easy way, but that was wow, yeah, impressive.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Intense.

Bruce Betts: Let's go on to the trivia contest and then we'll continue to dig into these types of subjects. I asked you, near and dear to my heart, who was the first person to sleep in space and I fell asleep while writing the question, but I did get the answer. And did other people get the answer? How did we do?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Very few people got this one wrong. People must also enjoy sleeping, which we all do. But our winner this week is Chip Kaplove from Novato, California, USA. The answer is Gherman Titov, who was the second person to orbit the earth on Vostok 2 in 1961, and then became the first person to sleep in space. I've also heard that he's the first person to experience kind of A motion sickness in space, which makes sense. As much as I want to go to space, I feel like I would have horrible motion sickness.

Bruce Betts: Yeah, he did the whole thing. He was the first to spend a whole day in space, first to sleep as a result, and the first to vomit in space, and was the youngest in space for a very long time. I believe still, I should know this, this is Random Space Facts, still the youngest to orbit the earth around 25-ish.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I believe that's true. One of our commenters wrote in that they thought it was really impressive that he was still the youngest person to ever orbit the earth. There have been younger people that have gone to space since then, but not orbit. So still a big moment. But Chip, you are going to be winning one of my James Webb Space Telescope posters that I actually got last year when I went to JPL to see the release of the first images from the James Web Space Telescope, so very special. It's my last one. And before we go into all the cool new, awesome trivia stuff, our poet laureate, Dave Fairchild from Kansas, USA, did write a poem about this one, which I thought was pretty cute, he said, "Vostok 2 went to space in 1961 and Gherman Titov went along. He found it rather fun. He went to sleep, then found his arms were floating, if you please. He tied them down with belting, then enjoyed some extra Zs." And this one too, Alan Weinberg from New York, USA, wrote in to say that, "I cannot prove whether Bruce Betts has gone back in time to be the first person to sleep in space or not. There seems to be a coverup of this vital information."

Bruce Betts: Oh, no. I can neither confirm nor deny anything about that topic.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah. Without any empirical data, we will never know whether or not you are a time traveler.

Bruce Betts: I can neither confirm nor deny anything about that. I have no recollection.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: One more comment I did want to read because this was really sweet. It's not often that children write into the show, but we did have a young listener from the United States write in to say, "Hi, I'm 13 years old, my name is Autumn, and I'm doing a project for science and I came across your trivia question." So you somehow ended up in this child's Google searching, which I love. And Autumn said, "It's my first time on your website and I'm doing college-level science, English, and math for school."

Bruce Betts: Awesome.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That impresses me so much. That is very high-level stuff for your age, Autumn. So good luck with all of that. And if you have any random space questions, I think Bruce can help.

Bruce Betts: It's always possible. Or if not, Sarah can.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's true, we got you.

Bruce Betts: And here, there's even more information for you to learn or maybe know in our next trivia contest.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: All right, what is our next question?

Bruce Betts: Following along in a theme of today's show, my theme, it's not the show, the segment, who was the fourth woman to fly in space? Who was the fourth woman to fly in space? You had Valentina Tereshkova, and then you jumped ahead 19 years to '82 and you had Svetlana Savitskaya, and then '83, Sally Ride, and then who was next? Fourth woman to fly in space, go to

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And you have until Wednesday, June 21st, at 8:00 AM Pacific time to get us your answer. And I love this prize. Every once in a while, people send these beautiful books to us in our office. So the winner this week is going to be getting a copy of The Sky Is Not The Limit by Jeremy Decalf. It's this beautifully illustrated poetic kids book about Voyager 2 and its adventures from Earth out into interstellar space, and I just thought it was beautiful. So whoever gets that question right is going to be getting a copy of that book.

Bruce Betts: Nice. All right, everybody. Go out there, look up the night sky and think about the worst thing you ever said when you didn't know you weren't on mute. Thank you and goodnight.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: We've reached the end of this week's episode of Planetary Radio, but we'll be back next week with some surprising findings from our solar system. Planetary Radio is produced by The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, and is made possible by our amazing members. You can join us as we continue to ponder the starry inferno at the beginning of the universe at Mark Hilverda and Rae Paoletta are our associate producers. Andrew Lucas is our audio editor. Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser. And until next week, ad astra.