Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy detects Universe’s first molecule in space

Published: April 23, 2019

The researchers have finally detected the most ancient type of molecule in our universe in space for the first time ever. They used NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) to detect helium hydride in a planetary nebula NGC 7027 about 3,000 light-years away from Earth. Helium hydride ion (HeH+) was the first molecule that formed when, almost 14 billion years ago, falling temperatures in the young universe allowed recombination of the light elements produced in the Big Bang. At that time, ionised hydrogen and neutral helium atoms reacted to form HeH+. Despite its importance in the history of the early Universe, HeH+ has so far escaped detection in astrophysical nebulae — cloud of gas and dust in outer space. Hence, the detection of this special molecule brings a long search to a happy ending, and eliminates doubts about understanding of the underlying formation and destruction of the early universe. SOFIA is the joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) to construct and maintain an airborne observatory. Being the world’s largest airborne astronomical observatory, the telescope has the ability to produce a higher resolution image, three times higher in quality than those captured by other observatories.