Secrets of Molecule that Helped Build the Universe Exposed

LiveScience.com

A new study of one of the most fundamental molecules in the universe has given scientists clues into how the very first stars were formed.

For the first time, researchers have calculated the vibration patterns of a compound called H3+ (also known as a triatomic hydrogen ion), which consists of three hydrogen atoms sharing two electrons. Knowing how the molecule can vibrate allows scientists to predict which wavelengths of lightit will emit, giving them a way to identify its signature in astronomical observations.

H3+ is important because it is thought to have been prevalent in the universe just after the Big Bang that started things off around 13.7 billion years ago.

"Most of the universe consists of hydrogen in various forms," University of Arizona chemist Ludwik Adamowicz said in a statement, "but the H3+ ion is the most prevalent molecular ion in interstellar space. It's also one of the most important molecules in existence."[Wacky Physics: The Coolest Little Particles in Nature]

 

H3+'s vibration and light-emitting qualities may have enabled it to transfer heat away from the first stars as they were in the process of forming, allowing them to coalesce without overheating and bursting apart.

 

"There wouldn't be any star formation if there weren't molecules that slowly cool down the forming star by emitting light," said Michele Pavanello, who was a University of Arizona graduate student when he worked on the project. "Astronomers think that the only molecule that could cool down a forming star in that particular time is H3+."

 

Adamowicz and Pavanello used a computer simulation to model the behavior of H3+, based on quantum mechanics.

 

"One has to involve a large amount of computations at the quantum mechanical level to predict those vibrations," Adamowicz said. "The role of theory is essentially to simulate those vibrations in the computer and then describe how the molecule is swinging or dancing."

Their simulations predicted numerous potential vibrations that would cause H3+ to emit photons of specific wavelengths, or energies. If telescope observations of a particular cloud in space reveal light of these wavelengths, then astronomers will know the cloud contains H3+.

The calculations should also help scientists understand the complicated physics of how stars form, especially the earliest stars in the universe.

"The only way we can predict how the stars form is if we know very well what the cooling abilities of H3+ are, and we cannot know its cooling ability until we know its vibrational spectrum," Pavanello said. "We need to know what these energy levels are. With this paper, we have pinpointed the energy levels up to a certain energy threshold that is already good enough to generate accurate predictions of the cooling ability of H3+."

The results of the study were reported in a recent issue of the journal Physical Review Letters.

Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

View Comments (259)

Recommended for You

  • Police officer shot after responding to wrong home

    ATLANTA (AP) — A police officer was shot and critically wounded Monday when he responded to a call of a suspicious person and showed up at the wrong house, authorities said.

    Associated Press
  • Man sentenced to life with no parole walks free in Missouri

    JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A man sentenced to life in prison without parole on a marijuana-related charge walked out of a Missouri prison a free man on Tuesday, after spending two decades behind bars.

    Associated Press
  • Woman Becoming Nun Needs Friend's Interest, Not Concern

    DEAR ABBY: I was best friends with "Joanne" after we met in middle school. She comes from a conservative Christian family and has three successful siblings. This has made her quirky, media-driven pursuits and city life a disappointment to her family. When we were teens and she learned that I was a…

    Dear Abby
  • View

    Kentucky county clerk refuses to issue same-sex marriage licenses (26 photos)

    Gay couples in a Kentucky county are expected at the courthouse door Tuesday morning after the Supreme Court ruled against a defiant clerk who has refused to hand out marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The Supreme Court ruled against the county clerk who refused to issue gay marriage licenses,…

    Yahoo News
  • Boko Haram killers on horseback massacre nearly 80 in NE Nigeria

    Suspected Boko Haram gunmen on horseback shot dead nearly 80 people in attacks on three villages in Nigeria's restive northeast at the weekend, a vigilante and residents told AFP on Monday. Babakura Kolo, a vigilante fighting Boko Haram, said 68 people were killed in the attack on Baanu village in…

    AFP
  • Real say De Gea transfer not their fault

    Real Madrid said on Tuesday they had done everything needed to complete the signing of goalkeeper David De Gea from Manchester United before Monday's midnight deadline and hinted that the English club were to blame for the deal's failure. Spain goalkeeper De Gea was all set to join Real but is now…

    Reuters
  • Big guns in east Ukraine fall silent, two more die from wounds in Kiev protests

    Sporadic shelling and shooting, which each side has blamed on the other, had ensured a steadily mounting death toll despite the ceasefire called as part of a peace plan worked out in Minsk, Belarus, in February. More than 6,500 people have been killed since a separatist rebellion erupted there in…

    Reuters25 mins ago
  • Sheriff: Suspect kills mother, stepfather, grandmother

    Outfitted in camouflage and armed with a high-powered rifle and 100 rounds of ammunition, Robert Seth Denton fatally shot his mother, stepfather and grandmother while six children witnessed the carnage in the family's double-wide mobile home in eastern Tennessee, a sheriff said Monday.

    Associated Press
  • This versatile 15-in-1 Travel Jacket is Kickstarter’s most funded piece of clothing at $7.2M

    Remember the MacGyver Travel Jacket that has 15 compartments that each have their own designated functions? It turns out that so many people loved the idea of having such a “smart” jacket that the project became the most funded piece of clothing in Kickstarter history, topping $7.2 million in…

    BGR News
  • Investigators: Arizona woman acknowledges drowning twin sons

    PHOENIX (AP) — An Arizona woman told investigators that she drowned her 2-year-old twin sons and tried to kill her 3-year-old stepbrother in the same way because she didn't want them to live with the difficulties she faces.

    Associated Press
  • Daughter Deep In Debt Needs Counseling, Not More Money

    DEAR ABBY: Three years ago I gave my adult daughter, married with a child, more than $16,000 to help pay off her debts because she couldn't pay her bills. She and her husband maintain separate accounts, which I find odd. He pays certain expenses; she pays others. Now I find she's deep in debt again…

    Dear Abby
  • CERN: Test results show more detail about 'God particle'

    GENEVA (AP) — After three years of scrutinizing the elusive Higgs boson closely, scientists say they've determined that the "God particle" behaves just as predicted.

    Associated Press
  • Nadal survives Coric scare at US Open

    Two-time champion Rafael Nadal survived a scare at the hands of Croatian teenager Borna Coric to reach the US Open second round. Nadal, who won his second New York title on his last appearance in 2013 before injury forced him to sit out 2014, prevailed 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 against his 18-year-old…

    AFP
  • With help, small island states ditch diesel for cheaper, cleaner energy

    By Megan Rowling BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After oil prices hit a record high in July 2008, the tiny Pacific nation of the Marshall Islands was forced to declare an economic emergency since around 90 percent of its energy needs were met by imported petroleum products. The fuel price…

    Reuters
  • Sword-wielding Patel crusader threatens Modi's 'model' in India

    By Rupam Jain Nair AHMEDABAD, India (Reuters) - A sword-wielding 22-year-old activist has emerged overnight as the most pressing political threat to Narendra Modi, accusing the Indian prime minister of breaking a promise to provide jobs that helped him win last year's general election. Hardik…

    Reuters
  • View

    The back alleys of one of America’s most dangerous cities (31 photos)

    High-tech policing and a renewed focus on community-officer partnerships are helping to bring calm to Camden, N.J., but it hasn’t been a cure-all. The impoverished town of 77,000 is still the most violent and crime-plagued city in the Garden State. A local policeman recently took Yahoo News…

    Yahoo News
  • Missouri man faces execution for raping, killing 15-year-old

    ST. LOUIS (AP) — An inmate scheduled to be executed Tuesday for killing a 15-year-old Missouri girl has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt his punishment, saying the death penalty is unconstitutional.

    Associated Press