Horsehead Nebula Could Be Giant Petroleum Refinery
Molecules discovered in the Horsehead Nebula hint that the region may function as a kind of gigantic, natural petroleum refinery.
Observations made using the Institute for Millimetric Radio Astronomy’s (IRAM) 30-metre telescope have detected the presence of hydrocarbon molecule C3H+ in the Horsehead Nebula, which sits around 1,300 to 1,500 light years from Earth in the constellation of Orion.
Jérôme Pety and his team at the IRAM facility in the Spanish Sierra Nevada were surveying the nebula, a dense cloud of gases and dust, to discover more about its chemical content. Among the data they found unexpectedly high levels of the propynylidyne ion C3H+, which is one of the molecules that makes up oil and natural gas on Earth.
“We are seeing the operation of a natural refinery of petroleum on a giant scale,” said Pety of the results.
You can get an idea for just how giant the intergalactic hydrocarbon resource is thanks to astronomer Viviana Guzman, who adds that the nebula “contains 200 times more hydrocarbons than the total amount of water on Earth”.
The discovery of the molecule is evidence that a giant interstellar refinery exists within our galaxy, as C3H+ is created when polyaromatic hydrocarbons (commonly found in coal, tar and petroleum products) are broken down by radiation. In the case of the Horsehead Nebula, the nebula would provide the gas while nearby stars offer the required radiation.