What’s the News: For the first time, astronomers have found molecular oxygen, which makes up about 20 percent of our air on Earth, in space. Using the large telescope aboard the Herschel Space Observatory, a team of researchers from the European Space Agency and NASA detected the simple molecule in a star-forming region of the Orion Nebula, located about 1,500 light-years from Earth. This takes astronomers one step closer to discovering where all of the oxygen in space is hiding.
What’s the News: In high school physics classes, students are often taught that static electricity develops when electrons detach from the surface of one object and jump to another, causing a difference in charge. Since opposite charges attract, the two objects are drawn to one another (like your hair to a balloon). But new research published in the journal Science shows that static electricity is caused by more than just the exchange of individual electrons, and instead involves the transfer of bigger (yet still tiny) clumps of material.
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]