William B. Latter (SIRTF Science Center/Caltech); NASA/ESA

Astronomers have spotted the universe’s first molecule

The universe’s very first molecule, thought to be created after the big bang, has been detected in space for the first time. Helium hydride (HeH), a combination of helium and hydrogen, was spotted some 3000 light-years from Earth by an instrument aboard the airborne Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a telescope built into a converted 747 jet that flies above the opaque parts of Earth’s atmosphere.

HeH has long been thought to mark the “dawn of chemistry,” as the remnants of the big bang cooled to about 4000 K and ions began to team up with electrons to form neutral atoms. Researchers believe that in that primordial gas, neutral helium reacted with hydrogen ions to form the first chemical bond joining the very first molecule.

In 1925, chemists synthesized HeH in the lab. In the 1970s, theorists predicted that the molecule may exist today, most likely formed anew in planetary nebulae, clouds of gas ejected by dying sunlike stars. But decades of observations failed to find any, casting doubts on the theory.

To find the elusive molecule, astrochemists search for characteristic frequencies of light it emits, particularly a spectral line in the far infrared typically blocked by Earth’s atmosphere. But a far-infrared spectrometer aboard SOFIA allowed them to find that signature for the first time, in a planetary nebula called NGC 7027 (pictured above), the researchers report today in Nature. The result shows this unlikely molecule—involving typically unreactive helium—can be created in space. With this cornerstone confirmed, it appears that the evolution of the following 13 billion years of chemistry stands on firmer ground.