They were popularized by being compared to nanoscale footballs, made up of a large number of carbon atoms. However, no one thought that they were as ubiquitous as the latest Spitzer results suggest them to be. They are called Buckminsterfullerene, or more commonly, buckyballs, after the architect, Buckminster Fuller, whose geodesic designs resemble these natural structures.
Spitzer discovers buckyballs
Enter Spitzer, the premier infrared satellite in the world right now. It roams around in space in an orbit around the Earth, since the atmosphere would block most of the infrared radiation. It has recently caught buckyballs around the double star system XX Ophiuchi. What’s more, the buckyballs are in solid form, and this can be easily figured out since the diffuse gaseous form gives a different absorptions spectrum compared to the solid one.
This is the first detection of solid buckyballs in space. Incidentally, the relatively wide presence of buckyballs in space was established by Spitzer itself in 2010.
Buckyballs are quite useful here on earth. They are extremely resistant to heat, pressure and chemical action. They have been thought to be shrink wraps, with the buckyballs acting as ‘cages’. Furthermore, their high tensile strength can be utilized in things like armour.
More carbon, better it is!
Buckyballs being found in outer space means that there is much more carbon in space than previously thought. Scientist think that this allotrope of carbon might indicate that more common allotropes like graphite might be present.
Mike Werner, NASA’s Spitzer telescope project scientist currently at JPL, Pasadena, California, says:
This exciting result suggests that buckyballs are even more widespread in space than the earlier Spitzer results showed. They may be an important form of carbon, an essential building block for life, throughout the cosmos.
The story appears in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Just before you leave us to do more mundane terrestrial stuff here’s a nice video, courtesy Space.com.