Bonn. The undated image composition shows the spectrum of the helium hydride ion together with a picture from the Hubble telescope.
Researchers have detected the first molecule in space that was formed after the Big Bang. Previously, they had searched for helium hydride ions for decades. The finding could help to further understanding of the early development of the universe, reports a team led by Rolf Güsten from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn in the journal “Nature”.
Helium hydride ions were the first molecules to form in the universe after the Big Bang about 13.8 billion years ago. Although the existence of the ion, a compound of ionised hydrogen and helium, was shown in the laboratory as early as 1925, it remained undetectable in space for a long time. “To date, there have simply been no appropriate detectors”, said astrophysicist Güsten.
He and his colleagues had researched for more than ten years to develop a high-resolution spectrometer that could detect the individual infrared radiation of the molecule in space. Researchers from Cologne University were also involved. The decisive measurements were finally taken from a Boeing 747 converted into a flying observatory. The molecule was found in a planetary nebula about 3,000 light-years away from Earth.
“We had the search for helium hydride ions on our agenda for a long time. Something as important as the first molecule in the universe naturally arouses scientific ambition”, Güsten said. The researchers hope that the discovery will enable them to better model chemical reactions in the early phase of the universe shortly after the Big Bang.
(Original text: dpa; translation: John Chandler)