WASHINGTON, Dec. 12 (Xinhua) -- A molecule containing a noble gas has been detected in space for the first time in the Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant about 6,500 light years from us, according to a new study published Thursday in the U.S. journal Science.
Separately, researchers studying the remnants of supernovae reported in the journal another exciting new discovery: the first detection of the formation of phosphorus, which is one of the six essential elements for life, at the heart of a stellar explosion.
Professor Mike Barlow of University College London and colleagues used the European Space Agency's Herschel Space Observatory to observe the Crab Nebula in far infrared light and found signs of the molecule known as argon hydride.
"We were doing a survey of the dust in several bright supernova remnants using Herschel, one of which was the Crab Nebula. Discovering argon hydride ... here was unexpected because you don' t expect an atom like argon, a noble gas, to form molecules, and you wouldn't expect to find them in the harsh environment of a supernova remnant," said Barlow.
The researchers said the only isotope of argon whose hydride could rotate in this case was argon-36.
They believed that energy from the neutron star at the heart of the nebula ionized the argon, which then joined with molecules of hydrogen to form the molecular.
The discovery of argon-36 in the Crab Nebula, the first detection of its kind, helps confirm a long-standing theory that the argon-36 isotope originates at the heart of massive supernovae, the researchers said.
A separate paper by Bon-Chul Koo of Seoul National University and colleagues identified a significant amount of phosphorus in Cassiopeia A, the youngest confirmed core-collapse supernova remnant in our galaxy.
The researchers used the 5-meter Hale Telescope in California to find that the ratio of phosphorus to iron-56 was 100 times greater in Cassiopeia A than in the Milky Way, suggesting that phosphorus was produced in the supernova.
Until now, researchers had only observed the origin of the other five life-sustaining elements, including hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur. Now, they can add phosphorus to that list.