Scientists find solid buckyballs in space

Scientists find solid buckyballs in space

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March 1, 2012

Scientists have made some impressive discoveries outside the solar system in recent years, from water-covered planets to the largest black hole ever identified. But the most recent of these fascinating discoveries, according to Space.com, is more reminiscent of a soccer ball than anything someone might see in an astronomy text book.

Traditionally referred to as buckminsterfullerenes after the iconic domes of famed architect and engineer Buckminster Fuller, the structures are better known as buckyballs. These molecules are composed of 60 carbon atoms linked in an intricate pattern of hexagons and pentagons to create a sphere with a hollow center. Now, for the first time, researchers have found these buckyballs in solid form.

Buckyballs are a reasonably common natural form of carbon, for instance, coming from something as simple as burning candles. But the molecule has also been produced artificially in labs. Researchers have developed a variety of potential uses for the substance, from medicine delivery to creating armor, in part because of the large gap in the middle of the molecule, but also because their structure makes buckyballs particularly strong.

The buckyballs produced by burning a candle is a simple gas, and researchers had identified the substance in space in that form in 2010, using the National Aeronautic and Space Administration's Spitzer Space Telescope, according to a press release from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. One cloud of buckyballs was estimated at a mass roughly 15 times that of the moon.

The discovery was a major development, as the buckyballs are now the largest molecule identified in space. But researchers were adamant that the material would be found in a solid form. Because of their unusual structure, buckyballs can stack together "like oranges in a crate," according to Nye Evans of Keele University in England, the lead author on the paper that introduced the discovery.

While many researchers imagined that buckyballs would eventually be found in solid form, the discovery confirms that this unique structure could play an important role in the development of complex chemical structures throughout the universe.

"This exciting result suggests that buckyballs are even more widespread in space than the earlier Spitzer results showed," Mike Werner, project scientist for Spitzer at JPL, said in a statement. "They may be an important form of carbon, an essential building block for life, throughout the cosmos."

Actually finding evidence of these fascinating structures was a serious challenge in itself. The solid particles the XX Ophiuchi system, a pair of stars around 6,500 light-years away, is estimated to contain solid buckyballs around the size of 10,000 Mount Everests, but any collection of these molecules would not amount to much itself.

"The particles we detected are minuscule, far smaller than the width of a hair, but each one would contain stacks of millions of buckyballs," Evans explained.

But once researchers decided they were looking for solid buckyballs rather than gaseous ones, the challenge became a little less daunting, since the solid form of the substance emits a different light than the individual molecules.

The whole discovery is very much an added bonus, however, as the Spitzer telescope, which was launched in 2003, was only expected to operate for a maximum of five years. But after the telescope ran out of liquid helium in 2009, some of the devices were found to still operate at a high level.

"The window Spitzer provides into the infrared universe has revealed beautiful structure on a cosmic scale," Bill Danchi, a Spitzer program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. "In yet another surprise discovery from the mission, we're lucky enough to see elegant structure at one of the smallest scales, teaching us about the internal architecture of existence."

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