August 16, 2011

Spitzer Finds Cosmic Graphene

NASA announced on Monday that the space agency's Spitzer Space Telescope has spotted the first-ever cosmic detection of graphene.

The material is strong and thin and conducts electricity as well as copper.  It is arranged like chicken wire in flat sheets that are one atom thick.

NASA said some believe it is the "material of the future," and could one day have applications in computers, screens on electronic devices, solar panels and more.

Researchers are interested in learning more about how graphene is created, and understanding chemical reactions involving carbon in space could hold clues to how humans and other life on Earth developed, according to NASA.

The telescope found signs of the graphene in two small galaxies outside of our own, called the Magellanic Clouds

Spitzer also spotted a related molecule known as C70 in the same region, which marks the first detection of this chemical outside our galaxy.

According to NASA, C70 and graphene belong to the fullerene family, which includes molecules known as "buckyballs." 

Fullerenes have been found in meteorites carrying extraterrestrial gases, and water has been recently encapsulated in buckyballs by using new laboratory techniques. 

The space agency said the findings suggest fullerenes may have helped transport materials from space to Earth long ago, possibly playing a role in the development of life.

Spitzer spotted buckyballs and C70 for the first time in July 2010 and later spotted buckyballs in the Small Magellanic Cloud.

Astronomers say graphene, buckyballs and C70 might be forming when shock waves generated by dying stars break apart hydrogen-containing carbon grains.

The research is published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.


Image Caption: An artist's concept of graphene, buckyballs and C70 superimposed on an image of the Helix planetary nebula. Credit: IAC/NASA/NOAO/ESA/STScI/NRAO


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