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Buckyballs Discovered in Another Galaxy
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Buckyballs Discovered in Another Galaxy

November 10, 2011
Artist's representation showing some forms of carbon compounds (foreground) against a depiction of a planetary nebula similar to the one detected in another galaxy called the Small Magellanic Cloud. Each pattern of carbon atoms has its own properties and its own infrared signature. Like diamonds, buckyballs are extremely strong and durable. More about this Image Astronomers using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope have detected arrangements of carbon atoms known as buckyballs outside of the Miliky Way galaxy for the first time. The discovery of buckyballs in the Small Magellanic Cloud--a dwarf galaxy containing several hundred million stars--suggests that these complex molecules may be present around many stars, where it was predicted they would be unlikely to form. Using the Spitzer's infrared spectrometer instrument, dozens of planetary nebulae that were known to have hydrogen-rich shells of gas that had been ejected from a dying star were searched. The ejected material contained carbon grains (much like soot) that condensed further from the star. In this cooling process--and under exposure to ultraviolet radiation--the grains not only can form fullerenes, but other carbon molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)--which can be created on Earth in the exhaust of diesel engines. The four, fullerene-rich planetary nebulae detected are within reach of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory's (NOAO) telescopes for follow-up spectroscopy, as well as the large sample of planetary nebulae that was searched for fullerene. Meticulous follow-up is forthcoming to determine the temperature and composition of their hot gas flows, with the aim of determining the physical and evolutionary characteristics of the fullerene-rich objects compared to the general planetary nebula population.