Buckminsterfullerenes, spherical cages composed of 60 carbon atoms, have been found beyond the Milky Way for the first time, suggesting they are quite common in space. The molecules may have delivered extraterrestrial organic compounds to the early Earth, helping to give life its start.
Resembling the geodesic domes designed by architect Buckminster Fuller, “buckyballs” were first detected in the lab in 1985. The molecules have also been found in meteorites, Earth rocks, and candle soot.
This year has seen the first solid detections of the structures beyond Earth’s surface. In July, a team reported the first confirmed detection of buckyballs in space. They found the molecules’ telltale signature in infrared light emitted by the dust and gas sloughed off by an old star.
Now two teams are reporting evidence of the carbon structures in other such clouds of stellar debris, called planetary nebulae, and in the interstellar space near young stars. “It turns out that buckyballs are much more common and abundant in the universe than initially thought,” astronomer Letizia Stanghellini of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Arizona, said in a statement.
Stanghellini is a member of a team led by Anibal García-Hernández at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, Spain, that found more evidence of the structures in planetary nebulae.
It had been thought that buckyballs would arise in nebulae low in hydrogen, since any hydrogen would likely combine with carbon, preventing the pure-carbon spheres from forming.
But the team found that was not the case.”The prevailing view has been that fullerenes cannot occur in hydrogen-rich outflows from these stars,” said team member Pedro Garcia-Lario of the European Space Astronomy Centre in Spain. “On the contrary, we have found that fullerenes may be fairly common in these kinds of hydrogen-rich environments.”
One of the nebulae lies outside the Milky Way, in a nearby galaxy called the Small Magellanic Cloud. Because the galaxy sits at a known distance from Earth, the team was able to estimate the abundance of buckyballs in the nebula. The molecules weighed in at about 15 times the mass of the moon.
A second team, led by Kris Sellgren of Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, found buckyballs in the space in between stars.
Buckyballs might have acted as sturdy space capsules that brought organic molecules to the early Earth. “They are incredibly stable molecules that are hard to destroy, and they could carry other interesting molecules inside them,” said Stanghellini. “We hope to learn more about the important role they likely play in the death and birth of stars and planets, and maybe even life itself.”