Astronomers discover universe's very first molecule in dying star

Using NASA's SOFIA, scientists finally pin down the elusive ancient molecule in space for the first time

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Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
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The first molecule -- and first molecular bond -- has been found in space. 


The universe is unfathomably huge and busy and filled with terrifying black holes that can rip planets apart.

However, in the moments immediately following the big bang, the universe was a pretty boring, empty place. It was hot and dense and filled with mostly hydrogen and helium atoms. In that primordial universe, scientists believe that hydrogen and helium collided -- forming the very first molecule the universe had ever seen.

For the first time, NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a telescope strapped to the back of a Boeing 747, has detected that very first molecule in space: Helium hydride. 

The discovery was made after studying planetary nebula NGC 7027, a cloud of gas and dust billowing out from a dying star around 3,000 light-years from Earth. Finding the molecule lurking in the solar system is an important step in confirming beliefs about the ancient universe and the interactions that occurred post-big bang. The findings were published in the journal Nature  on Wednesday.

"It was so exciting to be there, seeing helium hydride for the first time in the data," Rolf Guesten, lead author on the paper, said in a statement. "This brings a long search to a happy ending and eliminates doubts about our understanding of the underlying chemistry of the early universe."  

Helium hydride is central to understanding the early evolution of the universe. Scientists have long believed that the conditions after the big bang enabled helium hydride to form, providing the foundations of basic chemistry. In 1925, helium hydride was created in the laboratory for the first time, but it's eluded detection in the cosmos, throwing a galaxy-size spanner in the universal works.

Looking into the planetary nebula 40 years ago, astronomers thought they might find traces of the molecule, but the dense chemical soup made it difficult to pin down. That all changed when SOFIA received the GREAT (German Receive at Terahertz Frequencies) upgrade, allowing it to pinpoint the molecule in the nebula's soup just like any sane person would pluck peas out of their minestrone.

"This molecule was lurking out there, but we needed the right instruments making observations in the right position — and SOFIA was able to do that perfectly," Harold Yorke, director of the SOFIA Science Center, said in a statement.

With helium hydride's presence in space confirmed, the researchers finally solve a long-standing cosmic conundrum. If they couldn't find it, we might have headed back to the drawing board, our brains broken, trying to come up with a whole new hypothesis about the universe's chemical beginnings. 

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