Hydrogen peroxide has been detected for the first time in space — a discovery that will help astronomers to better understand the formation of water in the Universe.
The discovery was made with the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment telescope (APEX), situated on the 5000-m-high Chajnantor plateau in the Chilean Andes.
They observed a region in our galaxy close to the star Rho Ophiuchi, about 400 light-years away. The region contains very cold (around -250 degrees Celsius), dense clouds of cosmic gas and dust, in which new stars are being born.
The clouds are mostly made of hydrogen, but contain traces of other chemicals, and are prime targets for astronomers hunting for molecules in space.
Telescopes such as APEX, which make observations of light at millimetre- and submillimetre-wavelengths, are ideal for detecting the signals from these molecules.
Now, the team has found the characteristic signature of light emitted by hydrogen peroxide, coming from part of the Rho Ophiuchi clouds.
"We were really excited to discover the signatures of hydrogen peroxide with APEX," says Per Bergman, astronomer at Onsala Space Observatory in Sweden and lead author of the study.
“We knew from laboratory experiments which wavelengths to look for, but the amount of hydrogen peroxide in the cloud is just one molecule for every ten billion hydrogen molecules, so the detection required very careful observations," he added.
The study has been published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.