Mystery behind interstellar ‘buckyballs’ revealed by scientists | Science & Tech News

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Scientists believe they understand how mysterious interstellar “buckyballs” – complicated carbon molecules which appear scattered throughout the space between stars – are actually formed.

The “buckyballs” themselves are officially named Buckminsterfullerene, after the American futurist Buckminster Fuller and the suffix “-ene” showing that they’re an unsaturated hydrocarbon.

Buckminster Fuller was responsible for a number of popular geodesic dome designs, which the molecule’s structure strongly resembles – as it does a football with the arrangement of pentagons and hexagons on its sides.

The architect stands in front of his creation, a geodesic dome which acts as the US pavilion at the 1967 World's Fair
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Buckminster Fuller stood in front a geodesic dome

In scientific terms, the molecule is known as Carbon 60 (C60) and is a spherical molecule made up of 60 carbon atoms arranged in rings of five and six atoms.

Scientists had assumed that the vacuum of interstellar space had only a few very lightweight molecules spread throughout it, mostly single or double-atom molecules.

But a few years ago enormous complication carbon molecules with 60 or 70 atoms in them were detected – and surprisingly they were made purely of carbon atoms.

On Earth, laboratory environments are necessary to create C60, with scientists blasting together pure carbon sources such as graphite.

In space, C60 was detected in nebulae, the remnants of an explosion from a dying star – an environment which has 10,000 hydrogen molecules for every carbon molecule.

“Any hydrogen should destroy fullerene synthesis,” explained astrobiology and chemistry doctoral student at the University of Arizona Jacob Bernal, who is the lead author of the paper on “buckyballs”.

“If you have a box of balls, and for every 10,000 hydrogen balls you have one carbon, and you keep shaking them, how likely is it that you get 60 carbons to stick together? It’s very unlikely.”

392439 05: An image from NASA''s Hubble Space Telescope of a vast, sculpted landscape of gas and dust where thousands of stars are being born, July 26, 2001. The star-forming region, called the 30 Doradus Nebula, has the largest cluster of massive stars within the closest 25 galaxies. (Photo Courtesy of NASA/Getty Images)
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The molecules are formed in planetary nebula

Mr Bernal and his team discovered that the C60 was derived from the silicon carbide dust in nebulae.

This dust is hit by high temperatures, shockwaves and high energy particles, all of which works to leech silicon from their surfaces and leave only the carbon behind.

“These big molecules are dispersed because dying stars eject their material into the interstellar medium – the spaces in between stars – thus accounting for their presence outside of planetary nebulae,” explains the paper.

And because of their purity and shape, “buckyballs” are very resistant to damage from radiation, allowing them to retain their shape and survive for billions of years if shielded from the harsh environment of space.

“The conditions in the universe where we would expect complex things to be destroyed are actually the conditions that create them,” Mr Bernal said, adding that the implications of the findings are endless.

“If this mechanism is forming C60, it’s probably forming all kinds of carbon nanostructures,” co-author Professor Lucy Ziurys said.

“And if you read the chemical literature, these are all thought to be synthetic materials only made in the lab, and yet, interstellar space seems to be making them naturally.”

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