The Spitzer Space Telescope has located some elusive carbon molecules floating in space. Called “Buckyballs,” due to their resemblance to architect Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, these three-dimensional molecules are composed of 60 carbon atoms that form a stable, hollow sphere.
Though they’re only a billionth of a meter wide, C60, or the Buckminsterfullerene, as its known, is now the largest molecule known to exist in space. Since they were first discovered in a laboratory in 1985 during experiments that simulated the atmospheres of aging carbon-rich stars, they have escaped detection in space – until now.
Above: Excerpt from Horizon documentary on the discovery of C60, the Buckminsterfullerene, by scientists Robert Curl, Harold Kroto and Richard Smalley. “It was so beautiful that it just had to be right.”
They’ve been found in meteorites, Earth rocks, and candle soot, and nanotechnologists have stretched them into strong, light carbon nanotubes used in bike frames and tennis rackets. Someday they could prove to be optimal as superconductors and for drug delivery.
The strong molecules were discovered in a planetary nebula called Tc-1 – an interstellar gas and dust cloud left behind after a star’s death – that is unusually lacking in hydrogen, a condition perfect for the formation of Buckyballs (an abundance of hydrogen would prevent buckyballs from forming).
The discovery of Buckyballs might shed light (pun intended) on interstellar bands, a series of mysterious lines that appear in the light spectra of astronomical objects. Researchers use the spectrum from star light to determine what kinds of chemicals exist in the star’s atmosphere. But the interstellar bands are a mystery, apparently caused by another material absorbing some light from an astronomical object before its light reaches Earth. Buckyballs could be the missing piece of the puzzle.
Astronomers: time to get out your vuvuzelas.Science, NASA/JPL