Argon – The First Noble Gas Molecules Discovered In Space

There are only six of them: radon, helium, neon, krypton, xenon and the first molecules to be discovered in space – argon. They are all odorless, colorless, monatomic gases with very low chemical reactivity. So where did a team of astronomers using ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory make their rather unusual discovery? Try Messier 1… The “Crab” Nebula!

In a study led by Professor Mike Barlow (UCL Department of Physics & Astronomy), a UCL research team was taking measurements of cold gas and dust regions of this famous supernova remnant in infrared light when they stumbled upon the chemical signature of argon hydrogen ions. By observing in longer wavelengths of light than can be detected by the human eye, the scientists gave credence to current theories of how argon occurs naturally.

“We were doing a survey of the dust in several bright supernova remnants using Herschel, one of which was the Crab Nebula. Discovering argon hydride ions here was unexpected because you don’t expect an atom like argon, a noble gas, to form molecules, and you wouldn’t expect to find them in the harsh environment of a supernova remnant,” said Barlow.

When it comes to a star, they are hot and ignite the visible spectrum. Cold objects like nebular dust are better seen in infrared, but there’s only one problem – Earth’s atmosphere interferes with the detection of that end of the electromagnetic spectrum. Even though we can see nebulae in visible light, what shows is the product of hot, excited gases, not the cold and dusty regions. These invisible regions are the specialty of Herschel’s SPIRE instruments. They map the dust in far-infrared with their spectroscopic observations. In this instance, the researchers were somewhat astounded when they found some very unusual data which required time to fully understand.

“Looking at infrared spectra is useful as it gives us the signatures of molecules, in particular their rotational signatures,” Barlow said. “Where you have, for instance, two atoms joined together, they rotate around their shared center of mass. The speed at which they can spin comes out at very specific, quantized, frequencies, which we can detect in the form of infrared light with our telescope.”

According to the news release, elements can exist in varying forms known as isotopes. These have different numbers of neutrons in the atomic nuclei. When it comes to properties, isotopes can be somewhat alike to each other, but they have different masses. Because of this, the rotational speed is dependent on which isotopes are present in a molecule. “The light coming from certain regions of the Crab Nebula showed extremely strong and unexplained peaks in intensity around 618 gigahertz and 1235 GHz.” By comparing data of known properties of different molecules, the science team came to the conclusion the mystery emission was the product of spinning molecular ions of argon hydride. What’s more, it could be isolated. The only argon isotope which could spin like that was argon-36! It would appear the energy released from the central neutron star in the Crab Nebula ionized the argon, which then combined with hydrogen molecules to form the molecular ion ArH+.

Professor Bruce Swinyard (UCL Department of Physics & Astronomy and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory), a member of the team, added: “Our discovery was unexpected in another way — because normally when you find a new molecule in space, its signature is weak and you have to work hard to find it. In this case it just jumped out of our spectra.”

Is this instance of argon-36 in a supernova remnant natural? You bet. Even though the discovery was the first of its kind, it is doubtless not the last time it will be detected. Now astronomers can solidify their theories of how argon forms. Current predictions allow for argon-36 and no argon-40 to also be part of supernova structure. However, here on Earth, argon-40 is a dominant isotope, one which is created through the radioactive decay of potassium in rocks.

Noble gas research will continue to be a focus of scientists at UCL. As an amazing coincidence, argon, along with other noble gases, was discovered at UCL by William Ramsay at the end of the 19th century! I wonder what he would have thought had he known just how very far those discoveries would take us?

Original Story Source: University College London (UCL) Press Release

More Evidence That Mars Lost Its Atmosphere

Although today Mars’ atmosphere is sparse and thin — barely 1% the density of Earth’s at sea level — scientists don’t believe that was always the case. The Red Planet likely had a much denser atmosphere similar to ours, long, long ago. So… what happened to it?

NASA’s Curiosity rover has now found strong evidence that Mars lost much of its atmosphere to space — just as many scientists have suspected. The findings were announced today at the EGU 2013 General Assembly in Vienna.

Curiosity's SAM instrument (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Curiosity’s SAM instrument (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Curiosity’s microwave oven-sized Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument analyzed an atmosphere sample last week using a process that concentrates selected gases. The results provided the most precise measurements ever made of isotopes of argon in the Martian atmosphere.

Isotopes are variants of the same element with different atomic weights.

“We found arguably the clearest and most robust signature of atmospheric loss on Mars,” said Sushil Atreya, a SAM co-investigator at the University of Michigan.

SAM found that the Martian atmosphere has about four times as much of a lighter stable isotope (argon-36) compared to a heavier one (argon-38). This ratio is much lower than the Solar System’s original ratio, as estimated from measurements of the Sun and Jupiter.

The argon isotope fractionation provides clear evidence of the loss of atmosphere from Mars. (NASA/JPL)
The argon isotope fractionation provides clear evidence of the loss of atmosphere from Mars. (NASA/JPL)

This also removes previous uncertainty about the ratio in the Martian atmosphere in measurements from NASA’s Viking project in 1976, as well as from small volumes of argon extracted from Martian meteorites retrieved here on Earth.

These findings point to a process that favored loss of the lighter isotope over the heavier one, likely through gas escaping from the top of the atmosphere. This appears to be in line with a previously-suggested process called sputtering, by which atoms are knocked out of the upper atmosphere by energetic particles in the solar wind.

The solar wind may have helped strip Mars of its atmosphere over the course of many hundreds of millions of years (NASA)
The solar wind may have helped strip Mars of its atmosphere over the course of many hundreds of millions of years (NASA)

Lacking a strong magnetic field, Mars’ atmosphere would have been extremely susceptible to atmospheric erosion by sputtering billions of years ago, when the solar wind was an estimated 300 times the density it is today.

These findings by Curiosity and SAM will undoubtedly support those made by NASA’s upcoming MAVEN mission, which will determine how much of the Martian atmosphere has been lost over time by measuring the current rate of escape to space. Scheduled to launch in November, MAVEN will be the first mission devoted to understanding Mars’ upper atmosphere.

Find out more about MAVEN and how Mars may have lost its atmosphere in the video below, and follow the most recent discoveries of the MSL mission here.

Source: NASA/JPL