Using IRAM's 30m-telescope, astronomers find indications for vast petroleum reservoirs in the Horsehead Nebula

November 26, 2012
The distinct Horsehead Nebula in the Orion constellation is not only a favourite object of astronomy photographers all over the world, but apparently also a cosmic petroleum refinery. Credit: ESO

(—What sounds like science fiction is actually reality: using the 30m-telescope of the Institute for Radio Astronomy for astronomical observations in the millimetre range of wavelengths, astronomers have detected, for the first time, the interstellar molecule C3H+, in our galaxy. It belongs to the hydrocarbon family and is thus part of major energy resources of our planet, i.e. petroleum and natural gas. The discovery of this molecule at the heart of the famous Horsehead Nebula in the Constellation of Orion also confirms that this region is an active cosmic refinery.

The Horsehead Nebula, 1,300 light-years from Earth, is located in the , which will become more and more visible in the night skies over the next few weeks. Due to its famous and easily-recognizable shapes which gave the Nebula its name, is one of the most photographed objects by astronomers. But the Horsehead Nebula is also a fantastic interstellar chemistry lab, where high density gas and intense stellar light continuously interact and trigger many-layered chemical reactions.

Using the 30m- near the Pico del Veleta in the Spanish Sierra Nevada, IRAM-astronomers Jérôme Pety and his team for the first time undertook a systematic survey of the chemical content of the Horsehead's mane. The international project, called "Whisper", would not have been possible without the recent technical upgrades of the telescope instruments.  "Earlier, such a comprehensive enterprise would have taken at least one year of observations. Now we could complete measurements after one week", says Arnaud Belloche at the Max Planck Institute for . This opens new possibilities to classify the different kinds of gas in the universe, based on the molecules they contain.

The radiotelescope used for the observations: the IRAM 30m located near Granada in Spain's Sierra Nevada Credit: IRAM

In their current survey, the scientists were able to detect 30 molecules in the region, including many small hydrocarbons, the smallest molecules that compose petroleum and natural gas. The researchers were surprised by the unexpectedly high levels of hydrocarbons. "The nebula contains 200 times more hydrocarbons than the total amount of water on Earth!", said astronomer Viviana Guzman. In addition, one of these small hydrocarbons, the propynylidyne ion (C3H+), was observed for the first time in space as part of this work – even though this positively charged ion is a key player in the chemical reactions which link the small hydrocarbons together.

But how do these hydrocarbons form? In their article, Jérôme Pety and his colleagues propose that they result from the fragmentation of giant carbonaceous molecules named PAHs.  These giant molecules could be eroded by ultra-violet light, giving a large amount of small hydrocarbons. This mechanism would be particularly efficient in regions like the Horsehead where the interstellar gas is directly exposed to the light of a nearby massive star. "We observe the operation of a natural refinery of petroleum of gigantic size", concludes Jérôme Pety.

Explore further: Image: Decorating the sky

More information: Pety, J. et al. The IRAM-30m line survey of the Horsehead PDR: First detection of the l-C3H+ hydrocarbon cation, Astronomy & Astrophysics, November 23, 2012. … 201220062&Itemid=129

Related Stories

Image: Decorating the sky

December 27, 2010

This mosaic image taken by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, features three nebulae that are part of the giant Orion Molecular Cloud--the Flame nebula, the Horsehead nebula and NGC 2023.

The smoky pink core of the Omega Nebula

January 4, 2012

( -- A new image of the Omega Nebula, captured by ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT), is one of the sharpest of this object ever taken from the ground. It shows the dusty, rose-coloured central parts of this famous ...

Spitzer Reveals New Wonders in the Familiar Orion Nebula

August 15, 2006

The Orion nebula is one of the most famous and easily viewed deep-sky sights. Located in the sword of Orion the Hunter, this distant cloud of gas and dust holds hundreds of young stars. At its center, a cluster of four bright, ...

An X-Ray Santa Claus in Orion

November 30, 2007

Right in time for the festive season, ESA's XMM-Newton X-ray observatory has discovered a huge cloud of high-temperature gas resting in a spectacular nearby star-forming region, shaped somewhat like the silhouette of Santa ...

Breaking waves in the stellar lagoon (w/ Video)

September 22, 2010

The Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has captured a dramatic view of gas and dust sculpted by intense radiation from hot young stars deep in the heart of the Lagoon Nebula (Messier ...

The rich colors of a cosmic seagull (w/ video)

September 26, 2012

(—This new image from ESO's La Silla Observatory shows part of a stellar nursery nicknamed the Seagull Nebula. This cloud of gas, formally called Sharpless 2-292, seems to form the head of the seagull and glows ...

Recommended for you

Dawn mission extended at Ceres

October 20, 2017

NASA has authorized a second extension of the Dawn mission at Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. During this extension, the spacecraft will descend to lower altitudes than ever before ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3.4 / 5 (11) Nov 26, 2012
Abiogenic hydrocarbons.
Couldn't happen in the Earth, could it?
5 / 5 (4) Nov 26, 2012
"Petroleum"? petroleum, from Latin: 'petra' (rock) and Latin: 'oleum' (oil)
How about "hydrocarbons?"
Cosmology suggests that carbon is created in stars and dispersed as an atomic plasma during CMEs and nova events. Since the most abundant element in the universe (and in the carbon-producing stars) is hydrogen, methane and methyl compounds (ethane = 'dimethyl', methanol, methylamine, etc.) would be the most abundant forms of chemically bound carbon - at first.
IIRC correctly, Tommy Gold was looking for 'primordial methane' in the Siljan borehole. He hit oil at about 6.8 km depth in 1989.
3 / 5 (2) Nov 26, 2012
Quick, call Chevron!!! Design a pipeline orbital lifter!!!!!
not rated yet Nov 26, 2012
Not an impossible idea, and no need to go lightyears to load. Titan has enough hydrocarbons to supply us for thousands of years. Of course, we'd have to figure out where to put thousands of years of waste products, or Earth would start looking like a warm version of Titan...
5 / 5 (1) Nov 26, 2012
If they detected 200 times the (mass?) of Earth's water that sure sounds like a lot, right? In something the size of the Horse Head nebula is that even one molecule every cubic meter?
3 / 5 (4) Nov 26, 2012
Drill baby drill!
5 / 5 (3) Nov 26, 2012
Drill baby drill!

No, that would be suck baby suck. Big vacuum cleaner. After that operation, the vacuum WOULD be cleaner:)
2.9 / 5 (8) Nov 26, 2012
Abiogenic hydrocarbons.
Couldn't happen in the Earth, could it?

For once I agree with you.

It obviously has happened on the Earth and on Titan. Obviously oil is NOT just a "fossil fuel".
not rated yet Nov 27, 2012
Sanescience: I'm not about to try to calculate the volume of the Horsehead, but your number sounds about right for interstellar dust clouds. Even the thickest would be a good vacuum by laboratory standards.
5 / 5 (1) Nov 27, 2012
I wonder if the guys that redact the titles have specific instructions from their bossess to make them sound attractive (which they do, just being sensationalist).

Physorg Redacters should realize (reading the comments) that the way the choose words in their titles, they convert these "scientific news" in poor excuses for jokes, and distract their audience from the useful or interesting facts lying behind.
not rated yet Dec 02, 2012
Abiogenic hydrocarbons.
Couldn't happen in the Earth, could it?

It could; however, it wouldn't go anywhere because of the overlying rock and it forms very briefly and is extremely unstable (within the earth) On the earth's surface (ocean floor) it does occur, so far, in one known location: www.sciencemag.or...04.short
1 / 5 (1) Dec 02, 2012
Oil rush is onnnn. Last one there is a horse's butt! Har! Har!
This lends credence to the idea of panspermia.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.