After 20 Years, Buckyballs Have Been Confirmed In Space

Screenshot from video of buckyball vibrations. NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Buckyballs are a marvel of chemistry. These soccerball-like molecules are made up of 60 carbon atoms, all coordinated to create a tiny sphere in which the bonds between the atoms form pentagon and hexagon shapes. Buckyballs, or fullerenes, were discovered in laboratories in 1985, and were even Nobel Prize worthy. Astronomers postulated that the strange, previously inexplicable emissions they were seeing in space were from buckyballs and buckyball ions. After a long time spent trying to confirm this, scientists have finally succeeded. 

The team from the University of Basel propose that the space buckyballs they observed were created within stars and then kicked out. The ejection process happens when the star burns up and shoots off its outer layers of dust and matter in a feature called a planetary nebula. Buckyballs, created within the layers of stars, pour out along with the stellar matter and some of them are ionized in the process, losing an electron and becoming positively charged. When the dazzling nebulae release some matter into the depths of space, they take some buckyballs with them. This is why the complex buckyball structure can be spotted in between stars.

This isn't the first time that buckyballs (C60) have been spotted floating around in space. However, no one had confirmed the existence of buckyball ions (C60+) afloat in deep space until now. 

"We managed to identify the C60+ molecules by comparing our laboratory measurements with astronomical ones. The astronomical measurements are carried out by looking in directions of certain stars which are known to have the diffuse interstellar clouds between them and ourself. Optical telescopes are used for this," co-author John P. Maier explained to IFLScience.

To identify the presence of buckyballs from telescope observations, it was essential to know the absorption spectrum of buckyball ions. This comparison spectra was created in a laboratory. Physicists found the buckyball ion light signature by shining light through a sample of C60+ and measuring which wavelengths of light get absorbed. This spectrum was then compared to observations from space.

Maier explained to IFLScience why it has taken such a long time to confirm the presence of buckyball ions in space: "The laboratory measurements are technically very demanding, and it took us 20 years to achieve this." The team had to recreate space-like conditions in their laboratory, including near-perfect vacuums and temperatures near absolute zero. However, when they finally measured the signature of a buckyball ion, there was no doubt that this is what had been spotted in space. The match was "bang on," exclaimed Maier in an interview with Nature, where his results were also published

This discovery is the first unambiguous identification of buckyballs through diffuse space clouds. Their spellbinding creation has given Maier stars in his eyes. He told IFLScience that "It is absolutely amazing that this molecule appears to come from stars, then is spat out into the interstellar space and ionised by star light."

This research has significant implications for discussions on how smaller molecules are formed within the dust clouds of space. Could the formation of buckyballs, a complex and stable molecule, within stars contribute to the formation of smaller, less complex molecules?

Central Image: A planetary nebula. NASA.

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