Observing the edge of the famous Horsehead Nebula with the IRAM interferometer located on the Plateau de Bures (France), a team of French and Spanish astronomers discovered a large quantity of small hydrocarbon molecules. This is a surprise because the intense UV radiation illuminating the Nebula should destroy the small hydrocarbons near the edge. The astronomers suggest that these molecules might result from the fragmentation of giant molecules, called “polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons” (PAHs).
More than 120 molecules have been observed in the interstellar medium, of which about twenty are small hydrocarbons. These hydrocarbons are an important component of the interstellar chemistry as they furnish a carbon skeleton needed to build more complex molecules. However, these small hydrocarbons are easily broken apart by the UV radiation from young stars. Therefore, astronomers try to understand how these molecules are regenerated in spite of their destruction by UV radiation.
In addition to these small hydrocarbons, giant molecules, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), were detected in the early 1980’s, at infrared wavelengths. PAHs are aggregates made of tens to hundreds of mainly carbon and hydrogen atoms. Previous theoretical studies suggested that radiative fragmentation of the PAHs lead to small hydrocarbons. Jérôme Pety (IRAM, France) and his colleagues  have now provided one major step toward validating this theoretical hypothesis. They observed the famous Horsehead Nebula with the IRAM Interferometer (Plateau de Bures, France) , to search for hydrocarbons and to compare their location with that of PAHs detected a few years ago with the ISO satellite in the same region.
Jennifer Martin | alfa
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