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Herschel telescope detects oxygen molecules in space

Date:
August 1, 2011
Source:
NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Summary:
The Herschel Space Observatory's large telescope and state-of-the-art infrared detectors have provided the first confirmed finding of oxygen molecules in space. The molecules were discovered in the Orion star-forming complex. Individual atoms of oxygen are common in space, particularly around massive stars. But molecular oxygen, which makes up about 20 percent of the air we breathe, has eluded astronomers until now.

This graphic illustrates where astronomers at last found oxygen molecules in space -- near the star-forming core of the Orion nebula. The molecules, whose presence had been hinted at in space before, were definitively confirmed using the Herschel Space Observatory, a European Space Agency mission with important NASA contributions. Herschel's heterodyne instrument for the far infrared, developed in part at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., was used to split light from a specific region of the Orion nebula apart into its different submillimeter wavelengths. Astronomers display this information in plots, called spectra, which reveal the fingerprints of molecules. In this case, they recognized three distinct fingerprints of oxygen molecules, as displayed in the spectrum pictured here. The three lines show different ranges of wavelengths, with the signatures of oxygen molecules highlighted in pink. The picture of Orion was taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope at infrared wavelengths.
Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Herschel Space Observatory's large telescope and state-of-the-art infrared detectors have provided the first confirmed finding of oxygen molecules in space. The molecules were discovered in the Orion star-forming complex.

Individual atoms of oxygen are common in space, particularly around massive stars. But molecular oxygen, which makes up about 20 percent of the air we breathe, has eluded astronomers until now.

"Oxygen gas was discovered in the 1770s, but it's taken us more than 230 years to finally say with certainty that this very simple molecule exists in space," said Paul Goldsmith, NASA's Herschel project scientist at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Goldsmith is lead author of a recent paper describing the findings in the Astrophysical Journal. Herschel is a European Space Agency-led mission with important NASA contributions.

Astronomers searched for the elusive molecules in space for decades using balloons, as well as ground- and space-based telescopes. The Swedish Odin telescope spotted the molecule in 2007, but the sighting could not be confirmed.

Goldsmith and his colleagues propose that oxygen is locked up in water ice that coats tiny dust grains. They think the oxygen detected by Herschel in the Orion nebula was formed after starlight warmed the icy grains, releasing water, which was converted into oxygen molecules.

"This explains where some of the oxygen might be hiding," said Goldsmith. "But we didn't find large amounts of it, and still don't understand what is so special about the spots where we find it. The universe still holds many secrets."

The researchers plan to continue their hunt for oxygen molecules in other star-forming regions.

"Oxygen is the third most common element in the universe and its molecular form must be abundant in space," said Bill Danchi, Herschel program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Herschel is proving a powerful tool to probe this unsolved mystery. The observatory gives astronomers an innovative tool to look at a whole new set of wavelengths where the tell-tale signature of oxygen may be hiding."

Herschel is a European Space Agency cornerstone mission, with science instruments provided by consortia of European institutes. NASA's Herschel Project Office is based at JPL, which contributed mission-enabling technology for two of Herschel's three science instruments. The NASA Herschel Science Center, part of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, supports the U.S. astronomical community. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

For NASA's Herschel website, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/herschel .

For ESA's Herschel website, visit: http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Herschel/index.html .


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Herschel telescope detects oxygen molecules in space." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 August 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110801115657.htm>.
NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (2011, August 1). Herschel telescope detects oxygen molecules in space. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 16, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110801115657.htm
NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Herschel telescope detects oxygen molecules in space." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110801115657.htm (accessed September 16, 2014).

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Oxygen Molecules Found in Nearby Star-Forming Cloud

Aug. 1, 2011 — The European Space Agency's Herschel Space Observatory has found molecules of oxygen in a nearby star-forming cloud. This is the first undisputed detection of oxygen molecules in space. It ... read more
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