Astronomers have discovered a molecule in space that contains a noble gas. Until now, scientists thought such compounds only existed on Earth.
The find was made using an instrument aboard Europe’s Herschel Space Observatory. The molecule, argon hydride, was seen in the crab nebula, the remains of a star that exploded 1,000 years ago
The noble gases, which include helium, argon, radon, and krypton, usually do not react easily with other chemical elements, and are often found on their own. In the right circumstances, however, they can form molecules with other elements. Such chemical compounds have only ever been studied in laboratories on Earth, leading astronomers to assume the right conditions simply do not occur in space.
According to RedOrbit, the researchers measured areas of cold dust and gas and found the chemical fingerprint of argon hydride ions.
Professor Mike Barlow from University College London said he did not initially try to make the discovery, noting he found it almost by accident.
“At first, the discovery of argon seemed bizarre. With hot gas still expanding at high speeds after the explosion, a supernova remnant is a harsh, hot and hostile environment, and one of the places where we least expected to find a noble-gas based molecule,” he said.
The Crab Nebula–which has a diameter of 11 light-years–is located in the Taurus constellation, located some 6,500 light-years from Earth. The formation of the nebula corresponded to a supernova that was observed by astronomers in China in 1054 AD.
Gomez said that the Crab Nebula is “very young in astronomical terms, [and] also relatively close, at just 6,500 light years away, providing an excellent way to study what happens in these stellar explosions.”