NASA detects helium hydride, one of the oldest molecules for the first time in space

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planetary nebula 7027
Artistic illustration of nebula 7027. Here, SOFIA detected the helium hydride molecules

More than 13 billion years ago, when the Universe was formed, it was a simple pool of three simple monoatomic elements that encompassed almost all of it. For next 100 million years, there were no stars or planets formed. However, around 100,000 years after the Big Bang, the first ever molecule in the Universe was formed by the nuclear fusion and fission of Helium and Hydrogen and came to be known as a helium hydride ion, or HeH+.

According to David Neufeld, a John Hopkins University professor and an author of a study published this Wednesday , giving us an insight of the first ever molecule formed in space after nearly a tiring quest of decades. There had been numerous models based on the theory that convinced astrophysicists to a great extent that HeH+ came first into existence, later being followed by numerous complex and heavy molecules. HeH+ had been studied and observed in the laboratory since 1925, however, the detection of its natural existence in the outer space and within the Earth was beyond the horizon of any thought since , there was no definitive evidence to support its existence and thus it remained a dilemma for a long time in the field of astronomy as told by R Gusten, a scientist at Max Planck Institute.

The models developed in early 1970s suggested that HeH+ should exist in significant quantities in the gases that were ejected by the dying Sun-like stars which created exact conditions that prevailed during the early Universe.

Back then, when scientists studied the nebula called NGC 702, an idea was formed that it could give birth to the earliest of molecules. So scientists turned to SOFIA which flies at 45,000 feet, above the Earth’s atmosphere. Though it can’t get as close to objects in space as the Hubble, it can come back to the Earth allowing scientists to make adjustments regarding what they want to see.

One of those instruments is known as the German Receiver at Terahertz Frequencies, or GREAT which was able to tune in frequencies similar to those generated by HeH+ molecules.
The problem was with the electromagnetic waves that were given off by the molecule in the range which was in far infra-red region and got neutralised by the Earth’s atmosphere, making it fairly undetectable from the surface of the planet.

Hence, NASA joined hands with the German Aerospace and created an airborne observatory with a huge 2.7-metre telescope, an infrared spectrometer, and a Boeing 747 which was big enough to carry these.

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