Real Space Balls

By: Susie77 , 5:38 PM GMT on February 22, 2012

NASA Telescope Finds Elusive Buckyballs in Space07.22.10


Space Balls

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has at last found buckyballs in space, as
illustrated by this artist's conception showing the carbon balls coming
out from the type of object where they were discovered. Image credit:

› Full image and caption

› See 'Buckyballs Jiggle Like Jello' animation

› See 'Mini Soccer Balls in Space' animation

These data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope show the signatures of buckyballs in space.

These data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope show the signatures of
buckyballs in space. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of
Western Ontario

› Full image and caption

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." Cami has 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

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: .

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