Astronomers Finally Detect Oxygen Molecules in Space

By Joseph Castro | August 2, 2011 2:05 pm

spacing is important

What’s the News: For the first time, astronomers have found molecular oxygen, which makes up about 20 percent of our air on Earth, in space. Using the large telescope aboard the Herschel Space Observatory, a team of researchers from the European Space Agency and NASA detected the simple molecule in a star-forming region of the Orion Nebula, located about 1,500 light-years from Earth. This takes astronomers one step closer to discovering where all of the oxygen in space is hiding.

What’s the Context:

  • Oxygen is the third most abundant element in the universe, right behind hydrogen and helium. Astronomers see individual atoms of oxygen in space all the time, particularly around massive stars, and believe that molecular oxygen (O2) should be common, too. Scientists expect to see one molecule of O2 for every 100,000 molecules of H2, according to the European Space Agency.
  • Astronomers hope that knowing the amount of O2 in molecular clouds will let them determine what role the molecule plays in cooling the clouds (thought to be an important step in star formation).
  • But astronomers have searched in vain for decades, using balloons, ground-based telescopes, and telescopes in space, according to a release by NASA. In 2007, scientists using the Swedish Odin Telescope thought they had spotted the molecule, but other astronomers could not confirm the discovery.

How the Heck:

  • With the Herschel telescope, the team analyzed the spectra of the Orion Nebula, hunting for the specific wavelengths of light that molecular oxygen produces. They had to use instruments in space because the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs most of the radiation at the relevant wavelengths.
  • In a star-forming region of the nebula, the astronomers found about one molecule of O2 for every one million molecules of H2. The team suspects that oxygen is locked up in water ice that coats interstellar dust and that the O2 that they found may have formed after starlight heated the dust and released water, which then broke down into the detected oxygen molecules.

The Future Holds: The researchers are now going to inspect other star-forming regions, in hopes of finding more of the elusive molecule. “We didn’t find large amounts of [O2], and still don’t understand what is so special about the spots where we find it,” Paul Goldsmith, NASA’s Herschel project scientist, said in a prepared statement. “The universe still holds many secrets.”

[via LiveScience]

Image courtesy of NASA/JPL

  • william daniel

    I have a $10,000 wager that Einstein has been proven wrong. The silly idea of Relativity was science fiction.

  • wilkes

    Being apparently so rare, it would be amusingly disappointing if O2 was a marker for carbon based life forms.

  • http://DiscoverMagazine Templar 7

    I must point out that doesent it seem pretty nieve to think that the oxygen is there, it’s just “Hiding” from us. Either it’s there, or it isen’t.

  • Marshall

    To clarify – we’ve been able to see atomic oxygen in space for as long as there’s been any kind of spectroscopy at all. The blue-green emission lines of ionized oxygen are responsible for some of the most prominent nebula in the sky. What’s new here is detecting molecular oxygen, O2, as opposed to just single O atoms.

  • Michele

    William Daniel, you have lost $10,000. Relativity was proven years ago using atomic clocks. Unfortunately, nuclear bombs could not exist if relativity weren’t true.

  • Paul

    Michele, I don’t think relativity and quantum physics are related. Some of the same people were working on both, but they’re actually so incompatible merging the two is still an unsovled problem.

    You are right that it’s “proved,” as much as it can be. There was some blarg about an orbiting gyroscope station just a month or so ago. It showed frame draging and other effects.

    GPS wouldn’t work without relativistic effects.

    Gravitational lenses.

    Propagation delays along fibre optics and radio equipment.

    But nuclear fision is not related, imo.

  • Iain

    I don’t understand the big deal here. Oxygen has been seen all over the place. We know that O1 is highly reactive and seeks a companion. What’s the significance of O2? We know that early Earth had a reducing atmosphere and it took life forms to release O1 into the atmosphere many many times until finally it had to bond to itself instead of other elements. which were much more readily available. Finding O2 in interstellar dust is like finding alcohol in a beer. OK but so what?


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