NASA has announced an incredible discovery using the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA. It discovered the first type of molecule formed in the universe in space for the first time. SOFIA isn’t a satellite or spacecraft, it’s an instrument inside of an aircraft that flies high above the Earth’s surface and points instruments into space.
Scientists say that when the universe was young, only a few types of atoms existed. They believe that about 100,000 years after the big band helium and hydrogen combined to make a molecule called helium hydride for the first time. That molecule should be present in some parts of the modern universe, but it had been undetected in space.
That has changed thanks to SOFIA’s discovery of modern helium hydride in a planetary nebula, which is a remnant of what was once a Sun-like star 3,000 light-years from Earth. The nebula is near the constellation of Cygnus and is called NGC 7027. Conditions are present inside that nebula that allows helium hydride to form and exist in space.
The discovery confirmed that an important portion of our fundamental understanding of the chemistry of the early universe is correct. Scientists said that the molecule was out there, but they needed the right instrument to detect it. The scientists note that in the early universe only a few types of molecules existed, not the complex structures like stars, galaxies, and planets we know today.
When the hot early universe began to cool, hydrogen atoms interacted with the helium hydride leading to the creation of molecular hydrogen, which is the molecule primarily responsible for the formation of the first stars. The stars then forged the elements that make up the universe we know today. One key to allowing the discover was an upgrade to SOFIA’s German Receiver at Terahertz Frequencies known as GREAT. That upgraded added the specific channel for helium hydride.