Washington, September 3 (ANI): Scientists have just shown for the first time that one component of interstellar clouds emitting unusual infrared light know as the Unidentified Infrared Bands (UIRs) is a gaseous version of naphthalene, the chief component of mothballs back on Earth.
The research was led by Michael Duncan, Regents Professor of Chemistry at the University of Georgia (UGA).
The UIRs have been seen by astronomers for more than 30 years, but no one has ever identified what specific molecules cause these patterns.
The discovery that a special kind of naphthalene with a single extra proton is out in space is important to those studying interstellar regions for many reasons.
One of the most important is that the UIRs are associated with interstellar dust, and understanding the components of that dust could give clues to the origin of these mysterious voyagers.
The new information may also provide insights into stellar lifecycles.
"This came about because we found a way in our lab to make protonated naphthalene ions, and that allowed us to examine its infrared spectrum. It turned out to be a near-perfect match for one of the main features in the UIRs," said Duncan.
That naphthalene is part of the UIRs is not totally unexpected, as it is composed of only hydrogen and carbon.
Hydrogen composes by far the largest part of interstellar clouds, and carbon is another abundant element there.
Most people know naphthalene in its earthly crystalline form as C10H8, meaning it has 10 molecules of carbon and eight of hydrogen. The spectrum of this form of naphthalene does not match the UIRs.
Duncan and his colleagues, however, had reason to believe that adding an extra proton to naphthalene (from the abundant hydrogen in space), which latches on in an unlikely space collision to give it the formula C10H9 +, might cause just the kind of change in its spectrum to match the UIR pattern.
To see if the component out there in space is protonated naphthalene, they had to first create it in the lab, under conditions near Absolute Zero and then zap it with a laser, turning it into a gas, whose infrared spectrum could then be analyzed.
The sophisticated machines in Duncan's lab can both "see" infrared spectrum, and identify what molecule produced it, allowing the distinctive spectrum of protonated naphthalene to be measure for the first time.
It turned out that when Duncan and his team did all this, the spectrum from their laboratory-created protonated naphthalene was almost identical to the spectrum seen in one part of the UIR. (ANI)