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NASA’s airborne observatory has detected the first type of molecule ever formed in the universe.

This is the first time helium hydride has been found in the modern universe.

Scientists discovered the molecule in our own galaxy using NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), as the aircraft flew high above the Earth’s surface and pointed its sensitive instruments out into the cosmos.

SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP jetliner modified to carry a 106-inch diameter telescope. It found modern helium hydride in a planetary nebula, a remnant of what was once a Sun-like star.

Located 3,000 light-years away near the constellation Cygnus, this planetary nebula, called NGC 7027, has conditions that allow this mystery molecule to form, NASA said in a statement.

The discovery serves as proof that helium hydride can, in fact, exist in space, said the scientists in a paper published in the journal Nature.

“This molecule was lurking out there, but we needed the right instruments making observations in the right position – and SOFIA was able to do that perfectly,” said Harold Yorke, director of the SOFIA Science Centre in California’s Silicon Valley.

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