In one of the most superlative scientific discoveries of all time, Palmdale-based SOFIA researchers were able to detect the first type of molecule ever formed in the universe.
This astounding feat was reported on the front page of the Antelope Valley Press, on April 29, in a deeply researched story by Allison Gatlin.
Astronomers on board the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) were able to use a sophisticated instrument to detect modern helium hydride in a planetary nebula, a remnant of what was once a star, 3,000 light years away.
The enormously important discovery was made in observations during two flights from Palmdale in 2016, and reported in a recent issue of the journal Nature.
“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 in California’s Silicon Valley said.
Although for years, scientists believed this molecule should be present in some parts of the modern universe, they had never before been able to detect it.
They believed that helium and hydrogen combined some 100,000 years after the Big Bang to form the universe’s first molecule, called helium hydride.
SOFIA allows astronomers to peer into the far reaches of the universe. The airplane is a modified 747 airliner carrying a 100-inch telescope. The flights are far above the water vapor in the atmosphere.
Although the majority of the flights are made from NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center’s facility adjacent to Air Force Plant 42, some aerial trips are made from New Zealand gathering data from the Southern Hemisphere’s skies.
In the helium hydride detection mission, the team used the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies, (GREAT).
The flying platform has an inventory of different instruments that attach to the telescope to collect various kinds of information as the telescope makes its overnight observation flights.
“The lack of evidence of the very existence of helium hydride in interstellar space was a dilemma for astronomy for decades,” Rolf Guesten of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, in Bonn, Germany, and lead author of the report said.
“The instrument is kind of a radio receiver,” Karl Jacobs, a member of the GREAT technical team, said from the Palmdale site on April 26.
In the case of helium hydride, the frequency was just off the instrument’s scale when it was first used to try to detect the molecule. However, subsequent improvements to GREAT allowed it to reach the desired frequency and find the molecule’s signature.
The instrument also has a high frequency resolution, allowing it to distinguish the signature of one molecule from another.
“It was so exciting to be there, seeing helium hydride for the first time in the data,” Guesten said in a NASA release. “This brings a long search to a happy ending and eliminates doubts about our understanding of the underlying chemistry of the early universe.”
The achievement opens the dark door that conceals much of the ancient history of the universe.
The result is a magnificent verification of the astronomers’ long-held belief, adding an outstanding power point to the immense treasure of astronomical data.