The First Molecule In The Universe

Scientists have identified mystery molecules in space and the compound thought to have started chemistry in the cosmos

That helium was the first element to bond is surprising because in our current age, we think of helium as the least likely element to link up with others—the satisfied noble gas with just the right number of electrons. But in the early universe, helium was the only game in town—the only bank with electrons to lend.

This story has stood on solid theoretical ground for decades, but it has long lacked observational corroboration. Helium hydride or helonium (HeH+) cannot form on Earth, except in labs, and for decades it went undetected in space. Last year, however, astronomers announced that they had observed this molecule for the first time, lurking in the funeral pyre of a dying star. A 40-year search had paid off, and a new and vital piece was added to our picture of how the early universe took shape.

HeH+ now joins the ranks of extraterrestrial molecules; so far scientists have detected more than 200 molecular species in space. This study of chemistry beyond Earth—astrochemistry, as we practitioners like to call it—is aimed at clarifying what molecules are present in space, how they form, and what their evolution means for observational and theoretical astrophysics.

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