Oxygen found in star-forming clouds

Astronomers have made a breakthrough by discovering a particular form of oxygen for the first time ever in deep space. The elusive, vital molecule for life was detected in a cloud of gas 500 light years away by an orbiting observatory called Odin.

The relatively dense cloud, in the constellation of Ophiuchus, is a cosmic nursery where new stars and planets are born.

Previous attempts to find molecular oxygen by observatories on ground, balloon experiments and in space have failed, suggesting it was far less abundant than expected.

A team of scientists from Sweden, Canada, Finland and France made the landmark discovery. Now they have to work out why there is a thousand times less of the molecule than chemists’ theories had predicted.

Pinpointing the oxygen molecule involved the careful analysis of more than 300,000 measurements of the spectrum of signals from the gas cloud. Astronomers say their discovery, which is published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, is important as it will lead to new insights into how interstellar clouds develop and form stars and planets.

Odin, which was developed by the Swedish Space Corporation, carries a 1.1-metre diameter radio telescope operating in the millimetre and submillimetre wavelength ranges. It studies the Earth’s atmosphere as well as deep space.

The picture, from the SSC, indicates where the molecular oxygen was detected and shows how its fingerprint appeared in the spectral data.

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