Deep-space clouds smell like mothballs?

University of Georgia researchers say one component of space clouds is a gaseous version of naphthalene, the chief component of mothballs.

milky way
There are few things in this world that smell as bad as mothballs and it's a little disheartening to hear today that space might reek like the pungent balls of stench.

Researchers from the University of Georgia reported for the first time that one component of clouds emitting unusual infrared light know as the Unidentified Infrared Bands (UIRs) is a gaseous version of naphthalene, the chief component of mothballs.

The clouds have been seen by astronomers for more than 30 years, but no one has ever identified what specific molecules cause these patterns, researchers stated.

That naphthalene is part of the clouds is not totally unexpected, as it is composed of only hydrogen and carbon, researchers stated.  Hydrogen composes by far the largest part of interstellar clouds, and carbon is another abundant element.  This is known because scientists can measure their "light signals" or spectra and compare them to such spectra that can be generated in labs, the National Science Foundation-funded researchers stated.

Mothball-like stuff isn't the only nasty thing floating around in space clouds. Ethylene glycol, the chemical in automobile antifreeze, was also discovered in an interstellar cloud in 2002.

 Still, it opens an entirely new area of study for astrophysicists and chemists who continue to understand the composition of space and the origins of the Universe.

Indeed the research could help quell at least one of the ongoing disputes about the origins of these clouds.  According to NASA, its astrochemists had argued that molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons produce the bands. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, are various kinds of complex organic compounds containing numerous carbon atoms arranged in a hexagon. Complex organic compounds are the building blocks of life.

NASA researchers demonstrated a strong resemblance between the unidentified bands and the wavelengths of PAHs they measured in the lab. The research convinced many scientific community but not everyone. Some scientists doubted the accuracy of the lab measurements. Later an experiment by physicist Hans Piest at University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands suggests that the original measurements were indeed accurate.

Piest's new technique for measuring wavelengths should permit the specific types of PAHs in space to be identified. Determining the sources of organics that gave rise to life on Earth is one of astrobiology's chief objectives, NASA stated.

NASA has had a long interest in space clouds as you might imagine.  In 2007 NASA's AIM satellite provided the first global-scale, full-season view of iridescent polar clouds that form 50 miles above Earth's surface known as "Night-Shining" clouds.

Night Shining clouds form at a high altitude which lets them reflect sunlight long after the sun has set. According to NASA, little is known about these clouds at the edge of space, also called Polar Mesospheric Clouds. The clouds consist of ice crystals formed when water vapor condenses onto dust particles in these coldest regions of the planet, at temperatures that may dip to minus 210 to minus 235 degrees F.

The interest in all things space weather-related is also heating up.  In August Virginia Tech's Space@VT research group got a $2 million grant to build a chain of space weather instrument stations in Antarctica.

An NSF grant will help the group built new radar units that will work with the current Super Dual Auroral Radar Network -- an international collaboration with support provided by the funding agencies of more than a dozen countries, researchers stated. The radars combine to give extensive views of the upper atmosphere in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. The new radars will become part of a continuous chain of coverage that extends from Europe to eastern Asia, researchers stated.

The need for such a system is manifold. Satellites experience the disruptive effects of energetic charged particles and electrical charging across the satellite structure during various weather conditions. Astronauts are vulnerable to energetic radiation that may occur at space station altitudes. Navigation signals from global positioning satellites are affected by irregularities in the ionosphere that develop under some conditions, and massive disruption in electric power distribution systems can be triggered by geomagnetic storms, stated Robert Clauer, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech.

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