NASA’s Spitzer Telescope Spots 1st Solid Buckyballs

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NASA said Feb. 22 that astronomers using data from the Spitzer Space Telescope have discovered solid buckyballs in space. Prior to this discovery, NASA said, buckyballs had been found only in gas form in space.

The microscopic carbon spheres are also known as buckminsterfullerene. They take their name from the geometric arrangement of their carbon atoms, which resembles the geodesic dome designs of the late architect Buckminster Fuller.

Buckyballs are formed from 60 carbon atoms linked together to form a hollow sphere, “like a soccer ball,” NASA said in a statement. Astronomers spotted vast quantities of the tiny space balls, enough to create 10,000 Mount Everests, circling a pair of stars 6,500 light-years from Earth.

“These buckyballs are stacked together to form a solid, like oranges in a crate,” the study’s lead author, Nye Evans of Keele University in England, said in a statement. “The particles we detected are minuscule, far smaller than the width of a hair, but each one would contain stacks of millions of buckyballs.”

The Spitzer telescope, a space-based infrared observatory launched in 2003, spotted the buckyballs around the double-star system XX Ophiuchi. The light emitted by the carbon spheres is different from that seen in the gaseous form of buckyballs previously seen in space, allowing scientists to conclude that Spitzer had detected the material in its solid form, researchers said.

On Earth, buckyballs can be used in superconductors, medicines, water purifiers and armor, NASA officials explained. They can form naturally as a gas from burning candles and appear in solid form in rock minerals.

Buckyballs can also be created artificially and appear as a solid dark “goo” in test tubes, NASA officials said.

But astronomers had never seen the solid form of buckyballs in space until now.

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope detected the first signs of gaseous buckyballs in space in 2010, and ultimately found enough of the material to fill 15 Earth Moons inside the Small Magellanic Cloud, a small neighboring galaxy to our Milky Way.

However, knowing that gaseous material can coalesce into solid buckyballs such as those spotted by Spitzer takes the cake, researchers said.

“This exciting result suggests that buckyballs are even more widespread in space than the earlier Spitzer results showed,” said Mike Werner, NASA’s Spitzer telescope project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “They may be an important form of carbon, an essential building block for life, throughout the cosmos.”