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October 27, 2010

NASA Spitzer Telescope finds a lot of Buckyballs in Space

An infrared photo of the Small Magellanic Cloud taken by Spitzer is shown here in this artist's illustration, with two callouts. The middle callout shows a magnified view of an example of a planetary nebula, and the right callout shows an even further magnified depiction of buckyballs, which consist of 60 carbon atoms arranged like soccer balls. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope found carbon nanospheres throughout our Milky Way galaxy -- in the space between stars and around three dying stars. Spitzer detected buckyballs around a fourth dying star in a nearby galaxy in staggering quantities -- the equivalent in mass to about 15 of our moons.

Buckyballs, also known as fullerenes, are soccer-ball-shaped molecules consisting of 60 linked carbon atoms. They are named for their resemblance to the architect Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes, an example of which is found at the entrance to Disney's Epcot theme park





"It turns out that buckyballs are much more common and abundant in the universe than initially thought," said astronomer Letizia Stanghellini of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Ariz. "Spitzer had recently found them in one specific location, but now we see them in other environments. This has implications for the chemistry of life. It's possible that buckyballs from outer space provided seeds for life on Earth."

The new research shows that all the planetary nebulae in which buckyballs have been detected are rich in hydrogen. This goes against what researchers thought for decades -- they had assumed that, as is the case with making buckyballs in the lab, hydrogen could not be present. The hydrogen, they theorized, would contaminate the carbon, causing it to form chains and other structures rather than the spheres, which contain no hydrogen at all. "We now know that fullerenes and hydrogen coexist in planetary nebulae, which is really important for telling us how they form in space," said García-Hernández.
The other new study, from Sellgren and her team, demonstrates that buckyballs are also present in the space between stars, but not too far away from young solar systems. The cosmic balls may have been formed in a planetary nebula, or perhaps between stars

The implications are far-reaching. Scientists have speculated in the past that buckyballs, which can act like cages for other molecules and atoms, might have carried substances to Earth that kick-started life. Evidence for this theory comes from the fact that buckyballs have been found in meteorites carrying extraterrestial gases.

"Buckyballs are sort of like diamonds with holes in the middle," said Stanghellini. "They are incredibly stable molecules that are hard to destroy, and they could carry other interesting molecules inside them. We hope to learn more about the important role they likely play in the death and birth of stars and planets, and maybe even life itself."


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