The H3+ molecular ion plays a fundamental role in interstellar chemistry, as it initiates a network of chemical reactions that produce many molecules. In dense interstellar clouds, the H3+ abundance is understood using a simple chemical model, from which observations of H3+ yield valuable estimates of cloud path length, density and temperature. But observations of diffuse clouds have suggested that H3+ is considerably more abundant than expected from the chemical models. Models of diffuse clouds have, however, been hampered by the uncertain values of three key parameters: the rate of H3+ destruction by electrons (e-), the electron fraction, and the cosmic-ray ionization rate. Here we report a direct experimental measurement of the H3+ destruction rate under nearly interstellar conditions. We also report the observation of H3+ in a diffuse cloud (towards ζ Persei) where the electron fraction is already known. From these, we find that the cosmic-ray ionization rate along this line of sight is 40 times faster than previously assumed. If such a high cosmic-ray flux is ubiquitous in diffuse clouds, the discrepancy between chemical models and the previous observations of H3+ can be resolved.
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