Some of the most striking recent discoveries about interstellar matter involve molecules. It has been known for a long time that there are atoms and ions in space - mainly hydrogen and helium, of course - but also heavier elements like sodium and calcium. In addition, there are solid particles of dust, about 10-5cm across, which must be composed of heavier elements, as hydrogen and helium cannot condense under interstellar conditions.
In 1972, the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory-3, which employs an 80-cm telescope at wavelengths between 1000Å and 3000Å, was launched in the United States and put into operation. In the ensuing year, it has demonstrated that much of the interstellar medium is composed of hydrogen molecules. This result, based upon the observation of Lyman-band absorption in the spectrum of early-type stars, had been anticipated by a rocket observation of H2 by Carruthers in 1970.
The same OAO-3 instrument observed resonance lines of many cosmically abundant elements, and found that these elements often appear to be less abundant in interstellar space than in the solar system, relative to hydrogen. As young stars born recently from the interstellar medium do not show this effect, the heavy elements must in fact be present in some other form. Here I will argue that the heavy elements are largely locked up in the form of the dust and, further, that dust is critical for the formation of the molecules in interstellar space.
It is appropriate that the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory-3 which made these discoveries has been named in honor of Copernicus, the Polish astronomer we honor here on the 500th anniversary of his birth. Just as his discoveries were revolutionary for the understanding of the solar system, those made using the Observatory named in his honor have been revolutionary for the understanding of the Galaxy.