Herschel Telescope Detects Oxygen Molecules In Space

WASHINGTON -- The Herschel Space Observatory's large telescope and
state-of-the-art infrared detectors have provided the first confirmed
finding of oxygen molecules in space. The molecules were discovered
in the Orion star-forming complex.

Individual atoms of oxygen are common in space, particularly around
massive stars. But, molecular oxygen, which makes up about 20 percent
of the air we breathe, has eluded astronomers until now.

"Oxygen gas was discovered in the 1770s, but it's taken us more than
230 years to finally say with certainty that this very simple
molecule exists in space," said Paul Goldsmith, NASA's Herschel
project scientist at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in
Pasadena, Calif.

Goldsmith is lead author of a recent paper describing the findings in
the Astrophysical Journal. Herschel is a European Space Agency-led
mission with important NASA contributions.

Astronomers searched for the elusive molecules in space for decades
using balloons, as well as ground- and space-based telescopes. The
Swedish Odin telescope spotted the molecule in 2007, but the sighting
could not be confirmed.

Goldsmith and his colleagues propose that oxygen is locked up in water
ice that coats tiny dust grains. They think the oxygen detected by
Herschel in the Orion nebula was formed after starlight warmed the
icy grains, releasing water, which was converted into oxygen molecules.

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

The researchers plan to continue their hunt for oxygen molecules in
other star-forming regions.

"Oxygen is the third most common element in the universe and its
molecular form must be abundant in space," said Bill Danchi, Herschel
program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Herschel is
proving a powerful tool to probe this unsolved mystery. The
observatory gives astronomers an innovative tool to look at a whole
new set of wavelengths where the tell-tale signature of oxygen may be hiding."

Herschel is a European Space Agency cornerstone mission, with science
instruments provided by consortia of European institutes. NASA's
Herschel Project Office is based at JPL, which contributed
mission-enabling technology for two of Herschel's three science instruments.

The NASA Herschel Science Center, part of the Infrared Processing and
Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in
Pasadena, supports the U.S. astronomical community. Caltech manages

For NASA'S Herschel website, visit:


For ESA'S Herschel website, visit:



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