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]