NASA discovery: Agency detects Universe’s OLDEST molecule

The universe’s most ancient molecule has been detected in space, NASA has revealed, proving the predominant theory about how the universe advanced after the Big Bang. Although helium hydride was synthesised by scientists a century ago, it has until now proved stubbornly elusive to detect in space. But now US space agency NASA has announced it has finally found the mysterious molecule, which once scientist has described as “marking the beginning of chemistry.”

Dr Jérôme Loreau of the Université libre de Bruxelles, who was not involved in the NASA discovery explained to the two reasons for the discovery’s importance.

This really marks the beginning of chemistry in the universe

Dr Jérôme Loreau

He said: “We have detected more than 200 different species of molecules in space, including complex organic molecules composed of many atoms, but we have never detected one of the simplest molecules you can think of  – this helium hydride ion.

“It is composed of helium and hydrogen which are very abundant in space and that is the mystery for its non detection, until now.

“And another reason for the importance of its detection is that it was the first molecule to ever form in the universe.

“Almost 14 billion years ago, at some point the universe began to cool-down and the first atoms began to form and then the first molecules began to form.

“And the first molecule is this helium hydride ion, so this really marks the beginning of chemistry in the universe.”

The discovery has been lauded as it has contributed to a better understanding of the universe and how it evolved – how stars and galaxies began to form.

The basic molecule was formed in an object called a planetary nebula, which is what happens at the end of a star’s life.

Dr Loreau described the discovery as “reassuring” as helium hydride served a big role after the Big Bang and the formation of the first molecules.

He said: “We knew it had to be there and it is reassuring to finally observe it.

“Although it does not directly tell us about the Big Bang, indirectly it is a big step, because this molecule forms the dome of chemistry.”

Astronomers using NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), an infrared telescope mounted on a Boeing 747, discovered modern helium hydride in a planetary nebula in our own galaxy.

SOFIA took three flights in May 2016, climbing as high as 45,000 feet, to observe the planetary nebula NGC 7027.

The planetary nebula, positioned about 3,000 light-years away, is an expanding cloud of gas surrounding a star that was once similar to the sun but has ejected most of its material, leaving behind a stellar remnant called a white dwarf.

Within the hot gas of the nebula, SOFIA was able to pick out the signature of helium hydride in infrared light.

“This molecule was lurking out there, but we needed the right instruments making observations in the right position—and SOFIA was able to do that perfectly,” says Harold Yorke, director of the SOFIA Science Centre in California, in a statement from NASA.

More recently, an upgrade to one of SOFIA’s instruments, the German Receiver at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT), allowed the airborne telescope to search for the wavelength of light emitted by helium hydride ions.

The instrument works like a radio receiver, allowing NASA to tune to the correct frequency to search for specific molecules.

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