Image of planetary nebula NGC 7027 with illustration of helium hydride molecules. In this planetary nebula, SOFIA detected helium hydride, a combination of helium (red) and hydrogen (blue), which was the first type of molecule to ever form in the early universe. This is the first time helium hydride has been found in the modern universe. | Photo Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Processing: Judy Schmidt

Helium hydride ion, the first molecule that formed almost 14 billion years ago, was detected by NASA’s flying observatory SOFIA towards a planetary nebula.

  • Scientists and Astrophysicists have only been able to recreate this in labs up until now.
  • This molecule is believed to be the first molecule to form in the universe.
  • They found it in the planetary nebula NGC 7027

David Neufeld, co-author of the study in the journal Nature, who’s a professor and astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “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.”

Let’s go all the way back to the beginning, to the big bang,  13.8 billion years ago, when everything was in a single solitary point,  was super dense and inflated rapidly. This is when space and time began, everything that we know began at this point.

After the big bang, everything started cooling down and the first atoms formed, helium, lithium and hydrogen. But scientists knew that they had to be able to bond together. And they thought that helium and hydrogen would be the first to bond, but they couldn’t find them anywhere in nature or in space.

Researchers started looking for candidates that mimic the early Universe, and they decided on NGC 7027.

Looking for HeH+ is extremely difficult: it must be done using sensitive equipment and through as little atmosphere as possible. Ground-based telescopes aren’t ideal in the search.

NASA has a telescope up for the job: SOFIA, Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. The observatory is a 2.7-metre telescope on a Boeing 747SP and is flown to an altitude of roughly 43,000 feet (about 13 kilometres), a door opens and the telescope is aimed at its target.

The team used an instrument on SOFIA called the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT). This new tech makes it possible to observe in extremely high frequencies that are not accessible from the ground due to absorption by water vapor.

The telescope was pointed at NGC 7027 for three days in May 2016 and, finally, the molecule was spotted.

It took the team  a while to analyze everything because  they wanted to make sure they had found this molecule, and they wanted to not just say we’ve seen it. But they have a theoretical model that would seek to explain it as well.

Rolf Gusten, co-author of the paper, “The driver for the investigation has been to confirm the chemistry in the early universe. The fact that the molecule was not observed for three decades in the local universe caused some doubts that our understanding was not right.”

The formation of HeH+ was the universe’s first molecular bond, and started a chain reaction that would create all other molecules. When it reacted with a hydrogen atom, for example, it created H2, or molecular hydrogen — marking the beginning of the modern universe.

Renée Hlozek, a cosmologist at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, “It kick-started things. It was the first molecule.”, who was not involved in the study. We often think of the first molecule as being molecular hydrogen, because we see a lot of that in the universe … but this is what kicked off the process.”


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