Looking at a planetary nebula 6,500 light years away, scientists recognized an old friend: the buckyball. The large, soccer ball-shaped molecule–made from bonding 60 carbon atoms together–was first seen in a lab in 1985. In a paper published today in Science, scientists confirm the first known extraterrestrial existence of the rare carbon balls.
The buckyballs’ planetary nebula, called TC 1, surrounds a white dwarf star. Using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, a team led by Jan Cami of the University of Western Ontario observed traces of the the 60-atom balls and their 70-atom cousins while looking at light coming from the white dwarf.
When light hits molecules and atoms, they will vibrate in specific, measurable ways–a field of science known as spectroscopy. One of Cami’s colleagues, who was studying Tc 1, found some unfamiliar fingerprints in the nebula’s infrared light. Cami recognized them as carbon’s 60-atom configuration and its favored 70-atom carbon partner. [Discovery News]
The researchers think a lack of hydrogen in this nebula allowed the formation of the buckyballs, known more generally as fullerene (named after architect Buckminster Fuller and his geodesic domes).
The team suspects that abundant carbon and a lack of hydrogen in the nebula created just the right environment to give rise to buckyballs. When hydrogen is present, it combines with carbon, preventing the pure-carbon spheres from forming. [New Scientist]
The spherical version of the carbon molecule has found many applications in chemistry and physics research, for example, in building nanostructures. Researchers suspect that the balls, given their temperature, formed within the past 100 years, but may be impossible to make out a century from now.
The finding “shows that complex, large molecules can exist in space,” said astrophysicist Theodore Snow of the University of Colorado in Boulder, who was not involved in the research. “Buckyballs are very stable and resistant to interstellar ultraviolet radiation, so once formed they can have long lifetimes in space.” [SPACE.com]
Sir Harry Kroto, who won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering buckyballs, waxed poetic about their interstellar presence, wondering if there might be buckyball leftovers in each of us.
“It’s so beautiful that it’s been hiding from us and it took an experiment trying to uncover what was going on in stars to find it…. All the carbon in your body came from star dust, so at one time some that carbon may have been in the from of buckyballs.” [BBC]
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Image: Artist’s rendition / NASA/JPL-Caltech