The Crab Nebula noble gas discovery is getting loads of attention this weekend because it's the first time that noble gas molecules (specifically argon-36) have been detected in space. On Dec. 15, NewsOXY reported that Herschel’s SPIRE instrument was used to detect the gas.
"Looking at infrared spectra is useful as it gives us the signatures of molecules, in particular their rotational signatures. Where you have, for instance, two atoms joined together, they rotate around their shared center of mass. The speed at which they can spin comes out at very specific, quantized, frequencies, which we can detect in the form of infrared light with our telescope," explained Prof. Mike Barlow at UCL.
The Crab Nebula noble gas discovery helps support theories of how argon forms in nature. It was undoubtedly a huge advancement in science -- and it was totally unexpected which makes it that much more interesting. Inside the Crab Nebula, argon -- a noble gas -- has formed a molecule called "argon hydride." However, argon was thought to be inactive... and now it's clear that's not the case at all.
"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. In this case it just jumped out of our spectra (sic)," said Professor Bruce Swinyard of the UCL Department of Physics & Astronomy and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (via NewsOXY).
The Crab Nebula noble gas was found in a hostile environment that was discovered over 1,000 years ago. To make such a discovery now on a nebula that is 11 light-years in diameter? Well, that's pretty incredible. Previously, scientists didn't believe that molecules occurred in space... but apparently, they were wrong (source).
© Effie Orfanides 2013