Hair bleach is found in deep space

Astronomers have for the first time spotted hair bleach in the depths of space and say it gives them a clue to where water comes from in the universe.

The cloud of dust and gas in Ophiuchus
The cloud of dust and gas in Ophiuchus (ESO)

Molecules of hydrogen peroxide were discovered in clouds of cosmic gas and dust where new stars are being born, 400 light years from Earth.

The chemical is familiar at home for its use as a disinfectant or to bleach hair blonde. But scientists are excited by the find because its formation is closely linked to oxygen and water which are both key ingredients for life.

The interstellar bleach was found near the star Rho in the constellation of Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer, by European astronomers using the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment telescope (APEX) in the mountains of Chile.

The instrument, operated by the European Space Observatory, observes light at millimetre- and submillimetre-wavelengths, which is just right for detecting hydrogen peroxide.

Team leader Per Bergman, from Onsala Space Observatory in Sweden, said: “The amount of hydrogen peroxide in the cloud is just one molecule for every ten billion hydrogen molecules, so the detection required very careful observations.”

Scientists think the bleach forms in space on the surface of soot-like grains of dust when hydrogen is added to oxygen molecules. A step on, the hydrogen peroxide reacts with more hydrogen to produce water.

The discovery team believe their find will therefore help astronomers to understand better what caused water to form in the universe.

Co-author Bérengère Parise, head of the Emmy Noether research group on star formation and astrochemistry at the Max-Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany, said: “We don’t understand yet how some of the most important molecules here on Earth are made in space. But our discovery of hydrogen peroxide with APEX seems to be showing us that cosmic dust is the missing ingredient in the process.”

Reporter: Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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