Solid Buckyballs in Space are Stacked Like ‘Oranges in a Crate’

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From a JPL press release:

Astronomers using data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope have, for the first time, discovered buckyballs in a solid form in space. Prior to this discovery, the microscopic carbon spheres had been found only in gas form in the cosmos. The new work, led by Prof. Nye Evans of Keele University, appears in a paper in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Formally named buckminsterfullerene, buckyballs are named after their resemblance to the late architect Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes. They are made up of 60 carbon molecules arranged into a hollow sphere like a football. Their unusual structure makes them ideal candidates for electrical and chemical applications on Earth, including superconducting materials, medicines, water purification and armour.

In the latest discovery, scientists using Spitzer detected tiny specks of matter, or particles, consisting of stacked buckyballs. They found the particles around a pair of stars called “XX Ophiuchi,” 6,500 light-years from Earth, and detected enough to fill the equivalent in volume to 10,000 Mount Everests.

“These buckyballs are stacked together to form a solid, like oranges in a crate,” said Prof. Evans. “The particles we detected are miniscule, far smaller than the width of a hair, but each one would contain stacks of millions of buckyballs.”

Buckyballs were detected definitively in space for the first time by Spitzer in 2010. Spitzer later identified the molecules in a host of different cosmic environments. It even found them in staggering quantities, the equivalent in mass to 15 Earth moons, in a nearby galaxy called the Small Magellanic Cloud.

In all of those cases, the molecules were in the form of gas. The recent discovery of buckyballs particles means that large quantities of these molecules must be present in some stellar environments in order to link up and form solid particles. The research team was able to identify the solid form of buckyballs in the Spitzer data because they emit light in a unique way that differs from the gaseous form.

“This exciting result suggests that buckyballs are even more widespread in space than the earlier Spitzer results showed,” said Mike Werner, project scientist for Spitzer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “They may be an important form of carbon, an essential building block for life, throughout the cosmos.”

Buckyballs have been found on Earth in various forms. They form as a gas from burning candles and exist as solids in certain types of rock, such as the mineral shungite found in Russia, and fulgurite, a glassy rock from Colorado that forms when lightning strikes the ground. In a test tube, the solids take on the form of dark, brown “goo.”

“The window Spitzer provides into the infrared universe has revealed beautiful structure on a cosmic scale,” said Bill Danchi, Spitzer program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “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.”

Read the team’s paper here.

More info at the Royal Astronomical Society

Graphenes In Spaaaaaace!

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And just where have your buckyballs been lately? More technically known as fullerenes, this magnetic form of carbon shows some pretty interesting properties deduced from laboratory work here on Earth. But even more interesting is its cousin – graphene. And guess where it’s been found?!

When you picture a fullerene, you conjure up a mental image of carbon atoms arranged in a three-dimensional configuration with two structures: C60 which patterns out similar to a soccer ball and C70 which more closely resembles a rugby ball. Both of these types of “buckyballs” have been detected in space, but the real kicker is graphene. Its technical name is planar C24 and instead of being geodesic, it’s the thinnest substance known. Just one atom thick, this flat sheet of carbon is a portrait in extraordinary strength, conductivity and elasticity. Graphene was first synthesized in the lab in 2004 and now planar C24 may have been detected in space.

Through the use of the Spitzer Space Telescope, a team of astronomers led by Domingo Aníbal García-Hernández of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias in Spain have not only picked up a C70 fullerene molecule, but may have also detected graphene as well. “If confirmed with laboratory spectroscopy – something that is almost impossible with the present techniques – this would be the first detection of graphene in space” said García-Hernández.

Letizia Stanghellini and Richard Shaw, members of the team at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Arizona suspect collisional shocks generated in stellar winds of planetary nebulae could be responsible for the presence of fullerenes and graphenes through the destruction of hydrogenated amorphous carbon grains (HACs). “What is particularly surprising is that the existence of these molecules does not depend on the stellar temperature, but on the strength of the wind shocks” says Stanghellini.

So where has this discovery taken place? Try the Magellanic Clouds. In this case, using a planetary nebula “closer to home” is not part of the equation because science needs to be certain the material they are looking at is indeed the by-product of a planetary nebula and not a mix. Fortunately the SMG is known to be metal-poor, which enhances the chances of spotting complex carbon molecules. Right now the challenge has been to pinpoint the evidence for graphene from Spitzer data.

“The Spitzer Space Telescope has been amazingly important for studying complex organic molecules in stellar environments” says Stanghellini. “We are now at the stage of not only detecting fullerenes and other molecules, but starting to understand how they form and evolve in stars.” Shaw adds “We are planning ground-based follow up through the NOAO system of telescopes. We hope to find other molecules in planetary nebulae where fullerene has been detected to test some physical processes that might help us understand the biochemistry of life.”

Original News Source: National Optical Astronomy Observatory News Release.

Buckyballs Could Be Plentiful in the Universe

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Earlier this year, astronomers using the Spitzer Space Telescope announced they had found – for the first time — carbon molecules, known as “buckyballs,” in space. They were detected in one planetary nebula, and even though they were predicted to be rather prevalent out in space, no one was really sure. Until now. They’ve now been found in the space between stars, and around four more planetary nebulae, with one dying star in a nearby galaxy holding a staggering quantity of buckyballs — the equivalent mass of 15 times that of Earth’s Moon.

“It turns out that buckyballs are much more common and abundant in the universe than initially thought,” said astronomer Letizia Stanghellini of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Ariz. “Spitzer had recently found them in one specific location, but now we see them in other environments. This has implications for the chemistry of life. It’s possible that buckyballs from outer space provided seeds for life on Earth.”

Buckyballs are soccer-ball-shaped molecules that were first observed in a laboratory 25 years ago, and are named for their resemblance to architect Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, which have interlocking circles on the surface of a partial sphere. Also known as C60, and Fullerenes, they are the third major form of pure carbon; graphite and diamond are the other two. They have been thought to be common in space since they have been found in meteorites, and also in more everyday materials such as soot.

While two different studies announced today confirm that buckyballs could be widespread in space, they are turning up in places where astronomers thought they couldn’t exist. So, obviously we don’t have these molecules fully figured out yet.

All the planetary nebulae in which buckyballs have been detected are rich in hydrogen. This goes against what researchers thought for decades — they had assumed that, as is the case with making buckyballs in the lab, hydrogen could not be present. The hydrogen, they theorized, would contaminate the carbon, causing it to form chains and other structures rather than the spheres, which contain no hydrogen at all.

“We now know that fullerenes and hydrogen coexist in planetary nebulae, which is really important for telling us how they form in space,” said Anibal García-Hernández from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, Spain, lead author, working with Stanghellini on a paper appearing online Oct. 28 in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Using Spitzer, this team found the buckyballs around three dying sun-like stars, called planetary nebulae, in the our own Milky Way galaxy, plus in another planetary nebula the Small Magellanic Cloud, a nearby galaxy. This was particularly exciting to the researchers, because, in contrast to the planetary nebulae in the Milky Way, the distance to this galaxy is known. Knowing the distance to the source of the buckyballs meant that the astronomers could calculate their quantity — two percent of Earth’s mass, or the equivalent mass of 15 times that of Earth’s Moon.

Planetary nebulae are made of material shed from the dying stars.

Another Spitzer study about the discovery of buckyballs in space was also recently published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, (October 10, 2010) and was led by Kris Sellgren of Ohio State University, Columbus. This study found that buckyballs are also present in the space between stars, but not too far away from young solar systems.

They were found among two nebulae; NGC 2023, located near the well-known Horsehead Nebula in the constellation of Orion, and the second, NGC 7023, known as the Iris Nebula, in the constellation Cepheus.
These are the largest molecules ever discovered floating between the stars. Astronomers aren’t sure yet if these cosmic balls formed in a nearby planetary nebula and wandered away, or if they perhaps can spring up in interstellar space.

“It’s exciting to find buckyballs in between stars that are still forming their solar systems, just a comet’s throw away,” Sellgren said. “This could be the link between fullerenes in space and fullerenes in meteorites.”
Since carbon is the key building block for life as we know it, their perhaps prevalent existence in space is intriguing.

“Now that there are buckyballs confirmed in the interstellar medium and in circumstellar space, it’s likely that chemists will get more interested in the astrobiological implications of these fascinating molecules,” Sellgren said.

Sources: JPL, NOAO,, CalTech/Spitzer

, Earlier detection of Buckyballs in Space — NASA