Astronomers have discovered buckyballs in another galaxy for the first time, lending weight to the theory that they may have been responsible for the arrival on Earth of chemicals key to the origin of life.
Observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope have detected buckyballs - arrangements of carbon atoms which resemble soccer balls and also known as fullerene - in the Small Magellanic Cloud.
The astronomers suggest that they may be present around many stars where it was previously predicted they would be unlikely to form.
Letizia Stanghellini of the US National Optical Astronomy Observatory and colleagues in Europe used Spitzer telescope data to find the characteristic infrared signature of buckyballs in four planetary nebulae. They are believed to be created in the shells of gas and dust ejected from the dying stars at the center of the nebulae.
"Life on Earth has a love affair with carbon, because carbon chemistry is the chemistry of life," says Stanghellini. "Our discovery shows that these carbon buckyballs, which have also been found in meteorites and around stars in our own galaxy, are probably quite common in all galaxies."
Around one star observed by the team, the total mass of C60, a common type, is more than three times the mass of the planet Mercury. The carbon compounds are dispersed around the star and may form on small grains of dust in the material ejected from the star.
"The four fullerene-rich planetary nebulae detected by us are within reach of the NOAO telescopes for follow-up spectroscopy, as well as the large sample of planetary nebulae we searched for fullerene," said team member Richard Shaw.
"We are planning a scrupulous follow-up to determine the temperatures and composition of their hot gas flows, with the aim of determining the physical and evolutionary characteristics of the fullerene-rich objects compared to the general planetary nebula population."