'Buckyball' Molecules Discovered in Another Galaxy
NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has detected huge quantities of buckyballs -- little spheres of carbon -- in outer space. The background of this artist's illustration is an infrared photo of the Small Magellanic Cloud, taken by Spitzer. The middle pullout shows a magnified view of an example of a planetary nebula, and the right pullout shows an even more magnified depiction of buckyballs, which consist of 60 linked carbon atoms.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Cage-like carbon molecules called buckyballs have been found in another galaxy, showing that they're likely common in outer space and upping the odds that buckyballs delivered to the early Earth key chemicals necessary for life, scientists say.

Astronomers using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope found buckyballs — little spheres in the shape of soccer balls made up of 60 linked carbon atoms — throughout our Milky Way galaxy, in the space between stars and around three dying stars. They also detected the molecules around a fourth dying star in a nearby galaxy in staggering quantities — equivalent in mass to about 15 Earth moons, researchers said. [Illustration of the cosmic buckyballs.]

"It turns out that buckyballs are much more common and abundant in the universe than initially thought," said astronomer Letizia Stanghellini of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Ariz. "This has implications for the chemistry of life. It's possible that buckyballs from outer space provided seeds for life on Earth."

Buckyballs everywhere

Buckyballs, also known as fullerenes, are named after their resemblance to the architect Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes, an example of which is found at the entrance to the Epcot theme park in Orlando, Fla.

The miniature spheres were first discovered in a lab on Earth 25 years ago, but it wasn't until last July that Spitzer provided the first confirmed proof of their existence in space. At that time, scientists weren't sure if they had been lucky to find a rare supply, or if perhaps the cosmic balls were all around.

In the new study, researchers found the buckyballs around three dying sun-like stars, called planetary nebulas, in our own Milky Way galaxy. These cloudy objects, made up of material shed from the dying stars, are similar to the one where Spitzer found the first evidence for their existence.

The new research shows that all the planetary nebulas in which buckyballs have been detected are rich in hydrogen. This goes against what researchers thought for decades — they had assumed that, as is the case for making buckyballs in the lab, hydrogen could not be present.

The hydrogen, they once theorized, would contaminate the carbon, causing it to form chains and other structures rather than the spheres, which have no hydrogen in them at all.

"We now know that fullerenes and hydrogen coexist in planetary nebulas, which is really important for telling us how they form in space," said Anibal Garcia-Hernandez of the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias, lead author of the new study, which appears online Oct. 28 in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Garcia-Hernandez and his colleagues also located buckyballs in a planetary nebula within a nearby galaxy called the Small Magellanic Cloud.

And there were a lot them: equivalent to 2 percent of Earth's mass, or 15 of our moons.

Another research team recently found that buckyballs are also in the space between stars, but not too far away from young solar systems. The molecules may have been formed in a planetary nebula, or perhaps between stars.

"It's exciting to find buckyballs in between stars that are still forming their solar systems, just a comet's throw away," said Kris Sellgren of Ohio State University, lead author of the other study, which was recently published in Astrophysical Journal Letters. "This could be the link between fullerenes in space and fullerenes in meteorites."

Delivering seeds of life?

The implications of the findings are far-reaching, researchers said. Scientists have speculated in the past that buckyballs, which can act like cages for other molecules and atoms, might have carried substances to Earth that kick-started life. Evidence for this theory comes from the fact that buckyballs have been found in meteorites carrying extraterrestrial gases.

"Buckyballs are sort of like diamonds with holes in the middle," said Stanghellini. "They are incredibly stable molecules that are hard to destroy, and they could carry other interesting molecules inside them. 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."

The little carbon balls are important in technology research, too. They have potential applications in superconducting materials, optical devices, medicines, water purification, armor and more.