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Crab Nebula noble gas: Deep within Crab Nebula is argon, first compound emerges

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In the Crab Nebula, experts have found a noble gas, a true rarity out in space. This historic find is believed to be argon, and marks the very first proof that there is a natural gas-centric compound to be discovered on its own out among the stars. According to emerging details on the study, the hostile environment of the Crab Nebula is precisely what the element needed to form and exist. Nature World News provides these updates to this scientific story this Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013.

Dubbed the Crab Nebula noble gas piece, argon is normally known in the scientific realm to be a very isolated and inactive element. (Its name literally means “inactive” in Greek). So it is coming as a great surprise this week for one of the elements within the noble gases group — holding other such elements as krypton and helium — to be occurring naturally as a chemical compound and leading to the formation of a molecule.

With new findings from the Herschel Space Observatory, astronomers have discovered deep inside the far-off Crab Nebula that noble gas argon has merged to form a molecule called argon hydride. The nebula itself was first located by past astronomers from China nearly 1,000 years ago, and is believed to be the remnants of a massive star that exploded upon itself.

"At first, the discovery seemed bizarre," said lead researcher Michael Barlow from University College London. "With hot gas still expanding at high speeds after the explosion, a supernova remnant is a harsh, hostile environment, and one of the places where we least expected to find a noble-gas based molecule."

Yet this environment is what apparently was necessary to help argon, the noble gas that cannot completely be called inactive anymore, find a home in the Crab Nebula.

“The strange thing is that it is the harsh conditions in a supernova remnant that seem to be responsible for some of the argon finding a partner with hydrogen," said Paul Goldsmith of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “Argon hydride is created when argon ions react with hydrogen molecules, though the two are usually found in completely different parts of a nebula.”

"But we soon realised that even in the Crab Nebula, there are places where the conditions are just right for a noble gas to react and combine with other elements," Barlow said.

It appears that this Crab Nebula noble gas discovery is thus as interesting about argon (and its compound molecule, argon hydride) as it is the nebula itself.

"This is not only the first detection of a noble-gas based molecule in space, but also a new perspective on the Crab Nebula," said Göran Pilbratt, Herschel project scientist at the European Space Agency. "Herschel has directly measured the argon isotope we expect to be produced via explosive nucleosynthesis in a core-collapse supernova, refining our understanding of the origin of this supernova remnant."

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