Thediscovery of a long-sought molecule with a negative charge, the first-everpinpointed in the depths of interstellar space, may just be the tip of an icebergfor researchers studying the chemistry of the cosmos.
"It's kindof intoxicating because it's not just a solitary discovery," astronomer PatrickThaddeus, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), told SPACE.com."It's opening up a whole avenue of study."
Known as ananion, the negatively charged molecule joins a hostof other molecules--130 neutral and 14 positively charged--known to exist ininterstellar space. Astronomers believe a simple hydrogen anion is continuouslyformed and destroyed in our nearby Sun,but had not found negatively-charged molecules elsewhere in the universe,Thaddeus added.
"We've spotteda rare and exotic species, like the white tiger of space," said CfA astronomerMichael McCarthy, who led the study, said in a statement.
Trackingdown molecules in space may sound as exciting as counting sand grains on abeach. But the search can yield a wealth of information on how the chemicalingredients so vital for life arise in the universe.
Earlierthis year, researchers found that a seriesof organic molecules important for life formed in the gas and dust cloudsthat later lead to stars and planets.
McCarthy,Thaddeus and their colleagues used the GreenBank Telescope to hunt down a large molecule--relatively speaking--known asC6H- in the gas shell of a red giant star sitting in the constellation Leo, as wellas in a cold molecular cloud in the Taurus constellation.
In order topinpoint C6H-, which is a long chain of six carbon atoms attached to a hydrogenatom sporting an extraneous electron, McCarthy and his team identified itsradio signature on Earth, and thenused it as a template for comparison to space-based sources.
Thaddeussaid the research team has templates for three other negatively chargedmolecules and is itching to search for their space-based versions.
"It opensup the whole question of negative ions in interstellar space," Thaddeus added.
Theresearch was detailed in the Dec. 1 issue of The Astrophysical JournalLetters.
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