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Crab Nebula noble gas: Biggest telescope ever finds chemical of life in space

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The Crab Nebula noble gas discovery by Herschel, the biggest space telescope ever to have flown in space, is stunning scientists because “this is not only the first detection of a noble-gas based molecule in space, but also a new perspective on the Crab nebula,” says Göran Pilbratt, a Herschel project scientist at the European Space Agency. According to a Dec. 14, 2013, Astronomy Magazine report, “discovering argon hydride ions here [in the Crab Nebula] 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,” said Professor Mike Barlow of the UCL Department of Physics & Astronomy.

"The noble gases - helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon - rarely react with other atoms and compounds. Atoms and ions of noble gases have been detected in cosmic settings including stellar atmospheres, the interstellar medium, nebulae, and in our own solar system. However, compounds containing noble gas atoms or ions have not been observed in space, until now," commented The Space Reporter.

The Herschel Space Observatory, built and operated by the European Space Agency (ESA), is a space observatory and is the largest infrared telescope that has ever flown in space.

Named originally FIRST (the Far Infrared and Sub-millimetre Telescope) the telescope’s name was changed in 2000 to Herschel in honor of Frederick William Herschel, a German-born British astronomer. The Herschel space telescope was launched into space in 2009 and continued its space mission of seeing the coldest, dustiest, and farthest objects in space until 2013.

Among other objects in the universe, a team of astronomers led by Professor Mike Barlow of the UCL Department of Physics & Astronomy, used the European Space Agency's (ESA) Herschel Space Observatory to observe the Crab Nebula in far-infrared light.

According to Space.com’s description of the Crab Nebula, “when a star dies in a violent, fiery death, it spews its innards out across the sky, creating an expanding wave of gas and dust known as a supernova nebula. Arguably, the most famous of these supernova remnants is M1, also called the Crab Nebula.”

In the early 20th century, astronomers were able to take more detailed measurements of the Crab Nebula and found that the supernova nebula is expanding.

Now, by using the Herschel space telescope, University College London (UCL) astronomers led by Professor Mike Barlow and his team discovered noble gas molecules for the first time in the Crab Nebula.

“We were doing a survey of the dust in several bright supernova remnants using Herschel, one of which was the Crab Nebula. 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,” said Professor Mike Barlow.

It makes one wonder – what else is out there in space that scientists do not expect.

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