Astronomers using the NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope have discovered carbon molecules, known as fullerenes (and when arranged in a spherical form it is commonly called a buckyball, in space for the first time. Buckyballs are soccer ball shaped molecules that were first observed in a laboratory 25 years ago. A fullerene is any molecule composed entirely of carbon, in the form of a hollow sphere, ellipsoid, or tube. Cylinders are called carbon nanotubes or buckytubes. Fullerenes are similar in structure to graphite, which is composed of stacked graphene sheets of linked hexagonal rings; but they may also contain pentagonal (or sometimes heptagonal) rings.
Buckyballs are strange and exotic mostly because they were only discovered recently. Their properties vary. A spherical buckyball can trap or contain other atoms inside the buckyball for example. Some of the properties include a potential for superconductivity, high heat resistance, and stability.
It was not until1970 when it was first predicted by Eiji Osawa of Toyohashi University of Technology. It was officially discovered through mass spectrometry by scientists at Rice University 15 years later in 1985. It was officially named Buckminsterfullerene after Richard Buckminister Fuller a noted architect who used geodesic domes in some of his designs, a shape similar to that of fullerene on the molecular level.
They have been found in candle soot, rock layers and meteorites. Now they have been found in space.
"We found what are now the largest molecules known to exist in space," said astronomer Jan Cami of the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. "We are particularly excited because they have unique properties that make them important players for all sorts of physical and chemical processes going on in space."
Buckyballs are made of 60 (C60) carbon atoms arranged in three dimensional, spherical structures. Their alternating patterns of hexagons and pentagons match a typical black and white soccer ball.
The research team also found the more elongated relative of buckyballs, known as C70, for the first time in space. These molecules consist of 70 carbon atoms and are shaped more like an oval rugby ball.
The Cami team unexpectedly found the carbon balls in a planetary nebula named Tc 1. Planetary nebulas are the remains of stars, like the sun, that shed their outer layers of gas and dust as they age. A compact, hot star, or white dwarf, at the center of the nebula illuminates and heats these clouds of material that has been shed.
The buckyballs were found in these clouds, perhaps reflecting a short stage in the star's life, when it sloughs off a puff of material rich in carbon. These molecules are approximately now at room temperature. A century from now, the buckyballs might be too cool to be easily detected.
Researchers have simulated conditions in the atmospheres of aging, carbon rich giant stars, in which chains of carbon had been detected. These experiments resulted in the formation of large quantities of fullerenes. The present detection is a confirmation of the experimental results.
Sir Harry Kroto, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Bob Curl and Rick Smalley for the discovery of buckyballs, said, "This most exciting breakthrough provides convincing evidence that the buckyball has, as I long suspected, existed since time immemorial in the dark recesses of our galaxy."
For further information: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2010-243&rn=news.xml&rst=2679