A team of astronomers announced Monday they have discovered noble gas molecules in space in remnants of the Crab Nebula, a formation previously seen only in laboratories under certain conditions, The Independent reported.
The noble gases (argon, helium, neon, xenon, radon, and krypton) were spotted in the remnants of the Crab Nebula, a star that exploded 1,000 years ago and is 6,500 light years away. The team, originally examining the dust content created by exploding stars, made the discovery using the SPIRE (Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver) onboard the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory.
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The Herschel Space Observatory is the biggest space telescope ever to have flown and its instruments can detect far-infrared light, Astronomy Magazine reported.
“We were doing a survey of the dust in several bright supernova remnants using Herschel, one of which was the Crab Nebula,” said Professor Mike Barlow, from University College London, who led the study. “Discovering argon hydride ions here was unexpected because you don’t expect an atom like argon, a noble gas, to form molecules, and you wouldn’t expect to find them in the harsh environment of a supernova remnant.”
Professor Bruce Swinyard of the UCL Department of Physics & Astronomy and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, a member of the team, explained why the finding is significant.
“Our discovery was unexpected in another way — because normally when you find a new molecule in space, its signature is weak and you have to work hard to find it,” he told Astronomy Magazine. “In this case it just jumped out of our spectra.”
The detection of argon-36 in the Crab Nebula supports scientists’ theories of how argon forms in nature. They predicted that a supernova produced vast amounts of argon-36 and no argon-40, which is exactly what the team observed in the Crab Nebula, Astronomy Magazine reported.
Professor Matt Griffin from Cardiff University said technology and extensive research made the detection possible.
“Here we see the excellent performance of the Herschel-SPIRE spectrometer, the expertise of the instrument team in producing the highest quality data, and the tenacity and vision of the scientists analyzing it, all coming together to make an intriguing new discovery,” he said.
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