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We Found the Universe’s First Type of Molecule

We Found the Universe’s First Type of Molecule

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For decades, astronomers searched the cosmos for what is thought to be the first kind of molecule to have formed after the Big Bang. Now, it has finally been found. The molecule is called helium hydride. It’s made of a combination of hydrogen and helium. Astronomers think the molecule appeared more than 13 billion years ago and was the beginning step in the evolution of the universe. Only a few kinds of atoms existed when the universe was very young. Over time, the universe transformed from a primordial soup of simple molecules to the complex place it is today — filled with a seemingly infinite number of planets, stars and galaxies. Using SOFIA, the world’s largest airborne observatory, scientists detected newly formed helium hydride in a planetary nebula 3,000 light-years away. It was the first ever detection of the molecule in the modern universe. Learn more about the discovery:

Helium hydride is created when hydrogen and helium combine. 

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Since the 1970s, scientists thought planetary nebula NGC 7027—a giant cloud of gas and dust in the constellation Cygnus—had the right environment for helium hydride to exist. 

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But space telescopes could not pick out its chemical signal from a medley of molecules. 

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Enter SOFIA, the world’s largest flying observatory! 

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By pointing the aircraft’s 106-inch telescope at the planetary nebula and using a tool that works like a radio receiver to tune in to the “frequency” of helium hydride, similar to tuning a radio to a favorite station…

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…the molecule’s chemical signal came through loud and clear, bringing a decades-long search to a happy end.

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The discovery serves as proof that helium hydride can, in fact, exist in space. This confirms a key part of our basic understanding of the chemistry of the early universe. SOFIA is a modified Boeing 747SP aircraft that allows astronomers to study the solar system and beyond in ways that are not possible with ground-based telescopes. Find out more about the mission at www.nasa.gov/SOFIA

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