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National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO)

GBT Detection Unlocks Exploration of ‘Aromatic’ Interstellar Chemistry

11 Jan 2018, 14:10 UTC
GBT Detection Unlocks Exploration of ‘Aromatic’ Interstellar Chemistry B. McGuire, B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

Astronomers had a mystery on their hands. No matter where they looked, from inside the Milky Way to distant galaxies, they observed a puzzling glow of infrared light. This faint cosmic light, which presents itself as a series of spikes in the infrared spectrum, had no easily identifiable source. It seemed unrelated to any recognizable cosmic feature, like giant interstellar clouds, star-forming regions, or supernova remnants. It was ubiquitous and a bit baffling.

The likely culprit, scientists eventually deduced, was the intrinsic infrared emission from a class of organic molecules known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which, scientists would later discover, are amazingly plentiful; nearly 10 percent of all the carbon in the universe is tied up in PAHs.
Even though, as a group, PAHs seemed to be the answer to this mystery, none of the hundreds of PAH molecules known to exist had ever been conclusively detected in interstellar space.

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