Astronomers have discovered solid soccer-ball shaped molecules called buckyballs in space for the first time, providing a glimpse of the structure of matter and perhaps life in the cosmos.
The Spitzer Space Telescope was able to detect the buckyballs around a pair of stars 6,500 light-years from Earth. Named after the geodesic domes of architect Buckminster Fuller, buckministerfullerenes, or buckyballs, are sphere-shaped molecules with 60 carbon atoms. The unusual cage-like structure has made them candidates for storing hydrogen fuel or medical treatments on Earth.
Until now, astronomers have only found buckyballs in a gas form in space. Data from the telescope showed the microscopic molecules, each thinner than a strand of hair, to be stacked on top each other in a volume equivalent to 10,000 Mount Everests.
The buckyballs, which occur naturally on Earth, are now the largest molecules known in space. Just like a soccer ball, they are a precise combination of hexagons and pentagons. Buckyballs are formed when burning a candle and are found in certain types of rock, according to NASA.
“Astronomers are excited about the discovery of buckyballs in space first of all because it is something we have been looking for for about 25 years now, the main reason being that these buckyballs are the most stable and durable molecules that we know on Earth. So they are ideal to survive in their stellar medium–deep space,” said Jan Cami, an astronomer with University of Western Ontario at Canada, in a video released by NASA.
Researchers were able to “see” the buckyballs by interpreting the vibrations when infrared radiation is reflected or absorbed by the molecules, Cami explained.
Scientists involved in the project were excited because the discovery sheds more light on matter in space. “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 NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement. “They may be an important form of carbon, an essential building block for life, throughout the cosmos.”