NASA astronomers have positively identified space buckyballs in a solid form. Prior to this important discovery, the microscopic carbon spheres were found only in gas form within the cosmos.
Formally dubbed buckministerfullerene, buckyballs are named after their uncanny resemblance to the late architect Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes. Buckyballs are made up of 60 carbon molecules arranged into a hollow sphere, much like a soccer ball.
Their unique structure makes them ideal candidates for electrical and chemical applications on Earth, including superconducting materials, medicines, water purification and armor.
Scientists managed to identify tiny specks of matter - or particles - consisting of stacked buckyballs by using NASA Spitzer’s telescope as they emit light in a unique way that differs from the gaseous form. They found the particles around a pair of stars known as "XX Ophiuchi," located 6,500 light-years from Earth, and detected enough to fill the equivalent in volume to 10,000 Mount Everests.
"These buckyballs are stacked together to form a solid, like oranges in a crate," explained Nye Evans of Keele University in England.
"The particles we detected are miniscule, far smaller than the width of a hair, but each one would contain stacks of millions of buckyballs."
Buckyballs were detected definitively in space for the first time by Spitzer in 2010, which subsequently identified the molecules in a host of different cosmic environments. It even found them in enormous quantities, the equivalent in mass to 15 Earth moons, in a nearby galaxy called the Small Magellanic Cloud. However, in all of the above-mentioned cases, the molecules were in a gaseous form.
The recent discovery of buckyballs particles means that large quantities of these molecules must be present in some stellar environments in order to link up and form solid particles.
"This exciting result suggests that buckyballs are even more widespread in space than the earlier Spitzer results showed," said Mike Werner, project scientist for Spitzer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
"They may be an important form of carbon, an essential building block for life, throughout the cosmos."
It should be noted that Buckyballs have been found on Earth in various forms: as a gas from burning candles or existing as solids in certain types of rock, such as the mineral shungite found in Russia, and fulgurite, a glassy rock from Colorado that forms when lightning strikes the ground. In a test tube, the solids take on the form of dark, brown "goo."