The Interesting Place Where Helium was First Discovered

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Did you know that Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe? That’s right, even though we apparently are running out of it here on Earth.

It was first discovered on the sun by French astronomer Pierre-Jules-Cesar Janssen in 1868 as a yellow line in the sun’s spectrum while he was observing a solar eclipse from India.

Around the same time, an English astronomer, Sir Norman Lockyer, noted the line at a wavelength of 587.49 nanometers. He knew it couldn’t be produced by any known element. Lockyer named the new element helium after the Greek sun god, Helios.

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An Italian physicist, Luigi Palmieri, saw the same line, at 587.49 nanometers, in gasses coming from an eruption of Mount Vesuvius. In 1895, Swedish chemists Per Teodor Cleve and Nils Langer finally confirmed helium on earth in the mineral clevite.

About 0.0005 percent of the earth’s atmosphere is made up of helium, but it’s not bound to the earth by gravity and is constantly escaping into space. Decay of radioactive elements in the earth’s crust replenish the helium in the atmosphere.

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Alpha decay creates alpha particles. Once these particles capture two electrons each, they turn into helium atoms and travel to the atmosphere through cracks in the crust.

Helium is an important gas to us and is commercially extracted for all kinds of uses: inflating party balloons, scientific balloons and blimps for starters. It’s used in arc welding, for pressurization of fuel tanks of liquid fueled rockets and in supersonic wind tunnels. Deep sea divers need it in their tanks to avoid nitrogen narcosis. Liquid nitrogen is important in superconductor study and for superconductor magnets.

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We have to wonder if Janssen knew how much this faraway and inert gas would advance us.

What do you think about helium and its discovery? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!