February 22, 2012
Researchers Discover Solid-State Buckyballs In Space
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For the first time ever, astronomers have discovered buckminsterfullerines existing in a solid form in space, according to a study published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Ian O'Neill of Discovery News reports that buckminsterfullerines (also known as buckyballs) are "a geodesic molecular ordering of 60 carbon atoms that resemble the domes designed by American architect and inventor Richard Buckminster Fuller."
Previously, these carbon spheres had only been discovered existing in a gas state in outer space, but now researchers, including lead author Nye Evans of the UK's Keele University, have used data obtained from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope to detect particles made up of stacked buckyballs around a pair of stars.
Those stars, known as XX Ophiuchi, is located some 6,500 light years from Earth and had enough particles surrounding them " to fill the equivalent in volume to 10,000 Mount Everests," the U.S. space agency reported in a Wednesday press release.
"These buckyballs are stacked together to form a solid, like oranges in a crate," Evans said in a statement. "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, whose existence in space had not been confirmed until they were first witnessed -- in gas form -- by the Spitzer telescope in a nearby galaxy known two years ago, have an unusual structure which NASA says makes them prime candidates for a variety of chemical or electrical applications here on Earth, "including superconducting materials, medicines, water purification and armor."
Here on Earth, the soccer-ball shaped particles are discovered in soot, and while in solid form at the bottom of a test tube, they take on a "brown, 'goo-like form," O'Neill wrote.
"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," NASA officials reported on Wednesday. "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."
Mike Werner, Spitzer project scientist for at the Pasadena, California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), called the results "exciting" and said that their findings suggest that buckminsterfullerines were "even more widespread in space" than the telescope's previous findings had suggested. He added that he believed that the particles could be "an important form of carbon, an essential building block for life, throughout the cosmos."
Image Caption: NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has detected the solid form of buckyballs in space for the first time. To form a solid particle, the buckyballs must stack together, as illustrated in this artist's concept showing the very beginnings of the process. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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