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NASA announces discovery of universe's very first type of molecule

NASA announced Wednesday that scientists have discovered evidence in space of the very first type of molecule ever formed in the universe, following decades of searching and research. Using instruments aboard the world's largest airborne observatory, NASA discovered the molecule helium hydride by finding proof of its characteristic light frequency in a constellation 3,000 light-years away.   

NASA relied on the world's largest airborne observatory, Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), to detect helium hydride. A joint project between NASA and the German Aerospace Center, SOFIA flies a Boeing 747 with an eight-foot reflecting telescope around the planet at 45,000 feet in the air so it can take infrared astronomy observations that are not obstructed by water vapor in the Earth's atmosphere.  

"This molecule was lurking out there, but we needed the right instruments making observations in the right position — and SOFIA was able to do that perfectly," Harold Yorke, director of the SOFIA Science Center, said in a statement.

While today's universe is filled with planets, stars, galaxies and even black holes, 13 billion years ago the universe was mainly a hot and empty environment in which only a limited number of atoms existed, mainly helium and hydrogen. Scientists hypothesize that 100,000 years after the Big Bang event occurred, hydrogen combined with helium to create a molecule called helium hydride, the very first chemical bond in the universe. Scientists believed this molecule to be present in parts of today's universe, but had not discovered evidence of it until SOFIA turned its attention to a planetary nebula called NGC 7027 in the constellation Cygnus, roughly 3,000 light-years away. 

Like any nebula, NGC 7027 is really just the energy from light and gas remnants of an aging red giant star. Scientists began observing NGC 7027 in the late 1970s because they believed its ultraviolet radiation and heat conditions would be a likely environment for the formation of helium hydride. SOFIA's telescope was able to distinguish helium hydride from all of the other molecules in NGC 7027 by detecting its unique infrared wavelength. 

On Wednesday, SOFIA's official Twitter page explained its findings in more colloquial language. 

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