Herschel found oxygen molecules near the Orion nebula.
Science & Exploration

Astronomers searching for oxygen can breathe more easily

01/08/2011 3441 views 2 likes
ESA / Science & Exploration / Space Science

ESA’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 concludes a long search but also leaves questions unanswered.

The oxygen molecules have been found in the nearby Orion star-forming complex. While atomic oxygen has been long known in warm regions of space, previous missions looking for the molecular variety – two atoms of oxygen bonded together – came up largely empty-handed.

Even the observed amount of atomic oxygen is far less than that expected and this created an oxygen ‘accounting problem’ that can be roughly voiced as “where is all the oxygen hiding in the cold clouds?”

NASA’s Submillimetre Wave Astronomy Satellite and Sweden’s Odin mission have both searched for molecular oxygen and established that its abundance is dramatically lower than expected.

One possibility put forward to explain this was that oxygen atoms freeze onto tiny dust grains found floating in space and are converted to water ice, effectively removing them from sight.

If this is true, the ice should evaporate in warmer regions of the cosmos, returning water to the gas and allowing molecular oxygen to form and to be seen.

Molecular oxygen has been found in the Orion region
Molecular oxygen has been found in the Orion region

Paul Goldsmith, NASA’s Herschel project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, and an international team of investigators went looking for it with Herschel.

They used Herschel's HIFI far-infrared instrument and targeted Orion, where they reasoned that the forming stars would heat the surrounding gas and dust.

Using three infrared frequencies of the instrument, the Herschel Oxygen Project team were successful. They found there to be one molecule of oxygen for every million hydrogen molecules.

"This explains where some of the oxygen might be hiding," said Dr 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."

Oxygen, in all its forms, is the third most abundant element in the Universe and a major ingredient of our planet. It is found in our atmosphere, oceans and rocks, and is critical for life itself because we breathe the molecular form.

Although the search continues for it in space, Göran Pilbratt, ESA’s Herschel Project Scientist, believes this is a breakthrough moment: “Thanks to Herschel, we now have an undisputed confirmation that molecular oxygen is definitely out there. There are still many open questions but Herschel’s superior capabilities now enables us to address these riddles.”

Further information

Related Links

Science & Exploration

Other Herschel First Science Stories

01/01/1970 839 views
Open item
Herschel found oxygen molecules near the Orion nebula.
Science & Exploration

Astronomers searching for oxygen can breathe more easily

01/08/2011 3441 views 2 likes
Open item
Water plumes shoot from Enceladus
Science & Exploration

Enceladus rains water onto Saturn

26/07/2011 4786 views 9 likes
Open item
An artist’s impression showing a galaxy with a molecular outflow
Science & Exploration

Raging storms sweep away galactic gas

09/05/2011 2399 views 1 likes
Open item
Dense filaments of gas in IC5146
Science & Exploration

Herschel links star formation to sonic booms

13/04/2011 2171 views 6 likes
Open item
The calculated distribution of dark matter
Science & Exploration

Herschel finds less dark matter but more stars

16/02/2011 2957 views 1 likes
Open item
Andromeda: our nearest large galactic neighbour
Science & Exploration

Andromeda’s once and future stars

05/01/2011 7242 views 10 likes
Open item
Giant star IRC+10216
Science & Exploration

Recipe for water: just add starlight

02/09/2010 1683 views 5 likes
Open item
The Herschel and Planck AAAF Grand Prix 2010 award ceremony
Science & Exploration

Herschel and Planck win the French Grand Prix

10/06/2010 1072 views 0 likes
Open item
NGC 1999: Truly a hole in space.
Science & Exploration

Herschel finds a hole in space

11/05/2010 8434 views 29 likes
Open item
The Galactic bubble RCW 120
Science & Exploration

Herschel reveals the hidden side of star birth

06/05/2010 3045 views 5 likes
Open item
The CB244 dark globule
Science & Exploration

Herschel takes the temperature of an interstellar cloud

06/05/2010 1977 views 2 likes
Open item
Herschel and Rosette Nebula
Science & Exploration

Tracing the Milky Way’s hidden reservoirs of gas

06/05/2010 866 views 3 likes
Open item
Previously unseen galaxies revealed to ESA's Herschel
Science & Exploration

Herschel resolves the cosmic infrared fog

06/05/2010 826 views 0 likes
Open item
The Rosette molecular cloud, seen by Herschel
Science & Exploration

Baby stars in the Rosette cloud

12/04/2010 4036 views 8 likes
Open item
Inside the dark heart of the Eagle
Science & Exploration

Inside the dark heart of the Eagle

16/12/2009 2709 views 3 likes
Open item
Reservoir of cold gas in the constellation of the Southern Cross
Science & Exploration

Herschel views deep-space pearls on a cosmic string

02/10/2009 2377 views 3 likes
Open item
ISO: Infrared Space Observatory
Agency

Observations: Seeing in infrared wavelengths

2621 views 4 likes
Open item
Cold comfort for newborn stars - ISO unmasks the icy veil around the Eagle's fiery heart
Science & Exploration

Why infrared astronomy is a hot topic

11/09/2003 3784 views 5 likes
Open item
Location of Lagrangian point (L2)
Science & Exploration

L2, the second Lagrangian Point

18334 views 56 likes
Open item