Bleach discovered in space

Astronomers find key molecule hydrogen peroxide with the APEX Telescope in Chile

July 08, 2011

Rho Ophiuchi would have been a gold mine for hairdressers. Astronomers have now detected molecules of hydrogen peroxide for the first time in this stellar nursery 400 light years away. This liquid compound of hydrogen and oxygen is used to bleach hair. The researchers are interested in another aspect, however. How does water, life's most important molecule, form in interstellar space?

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Hydrogen peroxide (symbol H2O2) is familiar to chemists, cleaning staff and hairdressers for its bleaching properties. This whitener and antiseptic has now become one of the many familiar molecules discovered not only on Earth but also in interstellar space. An international team of astronomers carried out its observations with APEX (Atacama Pathfinder Experiment), the submillimetre telescope on the 5000-metre Chajnantor plateau in the Chilean Andes which is operated jointly by the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn together with the Swedish Onsala Space Observatory and the European Southern Observatory.

The region observed is close to the star Rho Ophiuchi in the serpent bearer constellation and contains extremely cold (minus 250 degrees Celsius), dense clouds of gas and dust in which new stars are being born. These clouds are mostly made of hydrogen, but also contain traces of other chemicals, and are thus prime targets for astronomers hunting for molecules in interstellar space.

As they scoured the region, the astronomers identified the characteristic signature of hydrogen peroxide in the radio emissions. "This proof is a really exciting result,” says Per Bergman, astronomer at Onsala Space Observatory in Sweden. “From laboratory experiments we already knew precisely which wavelengths to look for, but there is just one of these molecules for every ten billion hydrogen molecules.

Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) is a key molecule for both astronomers and chemists. Its formation is closely linked to two other very familiar molecules, oxygen and water. Both are indispensable for life as we know it on Earth. Since much of the water on our planet is thought to have originally formed in space, the scientists are keen to understand how it is created.

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