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Buckyballs in Space

Buckyballs in Space

Buckyballs are carbon molecules that contain 60 atoms of carbon, arranged in a three dimensional sphere. The surface of the sphere is composed of combinations of hexagons and pentagons, giving it an appearance that is similar to a soccer ball. They were originally named buckminsterfullerene after Buckminster Fuller who pioneered work on geodesic domes but are now more commonly called buckyballs. In July of 2010, the Spitzer space telescope detected some buckyballs in the distant remains of a star. In the months following that discovery, researchers have learned that this is not a rare occurrence and buckyballs have been found in great abundance in many locations.

NASA Telescope Finds Elusive Buckyballs in Space for First Time – [nasa.gov]

PASADENA, Calif. – Astronomers using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope have discovered carbon molecules, known as “buckyballs,” in space for the first time. Buckyballs are soccer-ball-shaped molecules that were first observed in a laboratory 25 years ago.

They are named for their resemblance to architect Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, which have interlocking circles on the surface of a partial sphere. Buckyballs were thought to float around in space, but had escaped detection until now.

“We found what are now the largest molecules known to exist in space,” said astronomer Jan Cami of the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. “We are particularly excited because they have unique properties that make them important players for all sorts of physical and chemical processes going on in space.”

Space Buckyballs Thrive, Finds NASA Spitzer Telescope – [jpl.nasa.gov]

The García-Hernández team found the buckyballs around three dying sun-like stars, called planetary nebulae, in our own Milky Way galaxy. These cloudy objects, made up of material shed from the dying stars, are similar to the one where Spitzer found the first evidence for their existence.

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.

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