NASA Telescope Finds Elusive Buckyballs In Space For First Time

WASHINGTON -- 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."

Cami authored a paper about the discovery that will appear online
Thursday in the journal Science.

Buckyballs are made of 60 carbon atoms arranged in three-dimensional,
spherical structures. Their alternating patterns of hexagons and
pentagons match a typical black-and-white soccer ball. The research
team also found the more elongated relative of buckyballs, known as
C70, for the first time in space. These molecules consist of 70
carbon atoms and are shaped more like an oval rugby ball. Both types
of molecules belong to a class known officially as
buckminsterfullerenes, or fullerenes.

The Cami team unexpectedly found the carbon balls in a planetary
nebula named Tc 1. Planetary nebulas are the remains of stars, like
the sun, that shed their outer layers of gas and dust as they age. A
compact, hot star, or white dwarf, at the center of the nebula
illuminates and heats these clouds of material that has been shed.

The buckyballs were found in these clouds, perhaps reflecting a short
stage in the star's life, when it sloughs off a puff of material rich
in carbon. The astronomers used Spitzer's spectroscopy instrument to
analyze infrared light from the planetary nebula and see the spectral
signatures of the buckyballs. These molecules are approximately room
temperature; the ideal temperature to give off distinct patterns of
infrared light that Spitzer can detect. According to Cami, Spitzer
looked at the right place at the right time. A century from now, the
buckyballs might be too cool to be detected.

The data from Spitzer were compared with data from laboratory
measurements of the same molecules and showed a perfect match.

"We did not plan for this discovery," Cami said. "But when we saw
these whopping spectral signatures, we knew immediately that we were
looking at one of the most sought-after molecules."

In 1970, Japanese professor Eiji Osawa predicted the existence of
buckyballs, but they were not observed until lab experiments in 1985.
Researchers simulated conditions in the atmospheres of aging,
carbon-rich giant stars, in which chains of carbon had been detected.
Surprisingly, these experiments resulted in the formation of large
quantities of buckminsterfullerenes. The molecules have since been
found on Earth in candle soot, layers of rock and meteorites.

The study of fullerenes and their relatives has grown into a busy
field of research because of the molecules' unique strength and
exceptional chemical and physical properties. Among the potential
applications are armor, drug delivery and superconducting technologies.

Sir Harry Kroto, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Bob
Curl and Rick Smalley for the discovery of buckyballs, said, "This
most exciting breakthrough provides convincing evidence that the
buckyball has, as I long suspected, existed since time immemorial in
the dark recesses of our galaxy."

Previous searches for buckyballs in space, in particular around
carbon-rich stars, proved unsuccessful. A promising case for their
presence in the tenuous clouds between the stars was presented 15
years ago, using observations at optical wavelengths. That finding is
awaiting confirmation from laboratory data. More recently, another
Spitzer team reported evidence for buckyballs in a different type of
object, but the spectral signatures they observed were partly
contaminated by other chemical substances.

For more information about Spitzer, visit:


Source: NASA

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