spaceSpace and Physics

Astronomers Now Know How Buckyballs Form In Space


Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

clockNov 14 2019, 14:54 UTC

An artist's conception showing spherical carbon molecules known as buckyballs coming out from a planetary nebula. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Without contest, the best name in chemistry is Buckminsterfullerene. These are complex-carbon molecules shaped like a soccer ball and for this reason, are also known as "buckyballs". These molecules have been unexpectedly discovered in space and astronomers have finally worked out how they might form in the nebulae around dying stars.

As reported in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, the team tried to recreate conditions found in circumstellar space. They used an instrument called the transmission electron microscope (TEM) that can simulate planetary nebulae conditions well and looked at what happened to a common type of stardust found there.


This stardust is made mostly of silicon carbide. The researchers placed the silicon carbide molecules in the TEM and then hit them with shockwaves, high-energy particles, and high temperatures. They discovered that eventually the silicon is pushed aside, leaving many carbon atoms interacting among themselves.

While these atoms are in these extreme hydrogen clouds, they can arrange themselves into complex patterns. Buckminsterfullerene molecules are very sturdy and very stable even in high-radiation environments. They can survive the harsh conditions around a dying star for a long time until they eventually escape into interstellar space.

"The conditions in the universe where we would expect complex things to be destroyed are actually the conditions that create them," lead author Jacob Bernal, an astrobiology and chemistry doctoral student at the University of Arizona (UA), said in a statement.

The findings are quite exciting. Buckyballs are found in soot but for the most part, they are created in the lab. The discovery of these molecules in space suggests the possibility for far more complex chemistry with many different implications for what we might find next in the cosmos.


"If this mechanism is forming C60, it’s probably forming all kinds of carbon nanostructures," added co-author Lucy Ziurys, Regents Professor of astronomy, chemistry, and biochemistry at UA. "And if you read the chemical literature, these are all thought to be synthetic materials only made in the lab, and yet, interstellar space seems to be making them naturally."

Buckminsterfullerene’s name comes from the architect Richard Buckminster Fuller renowned for his design of the geodesic dome structure of which these molecules appear very similar to. If you’re curious, the second-best name in Chemistry is (Mg, Fe²⁺)₂(Mg, Fe²⁺)₅Si₈O₂₂(OH)₂ (don’t worry the link is SFW).

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