SOFIA detects the first type of molecule ever formed in the universe

The planetary nebula NGC 7027 some 3,000 light years away from Earth

The planetary nebula NGC 7027 some 3,000 light years away from Earth

"It was the beginning of chemistry", said David Neufeld, a professor of molecular astrophysics at John Hopkins University and co-author of a study published Wednesday detailing how-after a multi-decade search-scientists finally detected the elusive molecule HeH+ in space - the first step on a path of increasing complexity in the Universe, "as momentous a shift as the one from single-cell to multicellular life on Earth", he told AFP.

This ultraviolet image is of the planetary nebula NGC 7293, also known as the Helix Nebula.

Helium atoms combined with these protons into the helium hydride ion HeH+, the universe's first molecular bond.

Spectrum of HeH+ as observed with GREAT on board of SOFIA towards the planetary nebula NGC 7027.

"This brings a long search to a happy ending and eliminates doubts about our understanding of the underlying chemistry of the early universe", Guesten said in a statement. According to the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, finding HeH+ in space has been a great astronomy challenge for many years.

In 1925, chemists synthesized HeH in the lab. In the 1970s, models predicted that it should be present in abundance in nebulae.

The young planetary nebula NGC 7027 has always been thought of as an ideal candidate for this discovery and kept under observation by NASA's Hubble space telescope.

It is here that HeH+ has now been discovered.

Post launch Status Briefing for Northrup Grumman Mission to Space Station
However, the first group of long-term residents on board the space station did not arrive until two years later in November 2000. The ISS - a rare area of cooperation between Moscow and Washington - has been orbiting the Earth since 1998.

While today's universe is filled with planets, stars, galaxies and even black holes, 13 billion years ago the universe was mainly a hot and empty environment in which only a limited number of atoms existed, mainly helium and hydrogen. Lithium atoms formed next. Physicists believe that this molecule's formation helped the young universe cool down, allowing stars to form. Both elements are the two most abundant throughout the universe, with hydrogen first and helium second. Despite the massive role HeH+ played in the universe, scientists have been restricted to studying versions of this primordial molecule in laboratories for almost a century (since 1925). But detected HeH+ in its natural habitat had remained beyond their grasp.

However, it is only visible in infrared, which made its detection incredibly hard.

Now experts say they have finally spotted helium hydride in a small but bright 600-year-old planetary nebula about 3,000 light years away in the constellation of Cygnus.

To lessen interference from Earth's atmosphere, SOFIA's instruments were integrated with a Boeing 747SP aircraft that can fly at 45,000 feet.

Over three flights in 2016, the astronomers focussed SOFIA's telescope on NGC 7027.

It is thus ionised, and also young and compact, resembling a mini-version of the early universe. It's because of this factor that the nebula is an ideal location for hunting HeH+ wavelengths.

"The discovery of HeH+ is a dramatic and attractive demonstration of nature's tendency to form molecules", said David Neufeld, study co-author and professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department at Johns Hopkins University, said in a statement.

"Despite the unpromising ingredients that are available, a mixture of hydrogen with the unreactive noble gas helium, and a harsh environment at thousands of degrees Celsius, a fragile molecule forms".

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