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  • Astronomists determined that helium, hydrogen and lithium would have been the first atoms to form after seconds after the Big Bang.

    Astronomists determined that helium, hydrogen and lithium would have been the first atoms to form after seconds after the Big Bang. | Photo: Reuters

Published 17 April 2019

"It's exciting, because it's the first time it's ever been seen in space," co-Author David Neufeld said.

After centuries of searching, scientists have found evidence of the first molecule formed after the Big Bang, a helium hydride ion (HeH+), Nature journal confirmed in a study published Wednesday.

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"For the first time, we've detected the same type of molecule in a nearby nebula. And it's exciting, because it's the first time it's ever been seen in space," co-author and astrophysicist professor at John Hopkins University, David Neufeld, explained.

The theory of the elusive HeH+ molecule was first introduced in the 1970s. Astronomists determined that helium, hydrogen and lithium would have been the first atoms to form in the first seconds after the Big Bang. The first of these to combine would have been helium and hydrogen, scientists hypothesized, however no proof was ever found.

The lack of extremely sensitive equipment posed a problem for many years, however, fortunately, U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientists had just the right telescope for the job: SOFIA, or the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.

Together with the German Aerospace Center, the team of researchers affixed the 2.7-meter telescope to a Boeing 747SP aircraft and flew it some 13 kilometers (43,000 ft) above ground in May 2016, pointing it at the NGC 7027 nebula in hopes of photographing the molecule.

After three days, they were met with success, but it took almost three years to confirm their findings.

"We wanted not just to say, 'We've seen it,' but to have a theoretical model that would seek to explain it," said Neufeld, adding that scientists plan to continue their search for other HeH+ molecules.

"It's the first step on a path of increasing complexity that ends up with very complicated things in the universe, like very complicated molecules, like DNA," he said.

“Not that this helium hydride led directly to DNA, but it's basically showing you that what started out as a very boring, smooth universe just containing atoms can end up with more complicated structures, molecules — and ultimately, as we know, life."


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