NASA Finds Solid Buckyballs in Space: Insight into the Architecture of Life

NASA reports that its infrared Spitzer Space Telescope helped astronomers discover a real first — solid buckyballs, or buckminsterfullerine, in space. Here’s the surprising place they found them …

Image credit: NASA, JPL and Caltech

NASA astronomers report that, for the first time, its Spitzer Space Telescope has detected buckyballs in space. And not just any old buckyball. It’s found solid particle buckyball material in space. In a release, NASA reps say the observatory found the material around the star Ophiuchi, about 6,500 light years away.

That hot little star is part of a much-studied twin star system. Before this discovery, researchers had only found space buckyballs — or buckminsterfullerene — in gas form. And that was just two years ago, a huge deal then, too.

What’s different? “These buckyballs are stacked together to form a solid, like oranges in a crate,” reports Nye Evans of Keele University in the United Kingdom. Evans is the lead researcher who authored a paper announcing the discovery, which appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. “The particles we detected are minuscule, far smaller than the width of a hair, but each one would contain stacks of millions of buckyballs.”

Adds Mike Werner, a Spitzer scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, “This exciting result suggests that buckyballs are even more widespread in space than the earlier Spitzer results showed … they may be an important form of carbon.”

Carbon is the essential element of life — all living creatures, on Earth anyway : ) — are carbon-based. Carbon chemistry is otherwise known as organic chemistry, the chemistry of life.

If you don’t remember what a buckyball is, here’s a college chem refresher for you.

A buckyball is quite simply 60 carbon atoms arranged in the shape of a hollow sphere, or ball, not unlike a soccer ball or geodesic dome. The name derives from the the late architect Buckminster Fuller, who designed such domes.

Buckyballs and their distinctive shape fascinate scientists. Their unique structure and signature shape have made them the stuff of research in various sciences and scientific applications, including tech, medicine and other chemical and electrical applications.

On Earth, scientists have uncovered them in a number of iterations. According to NASA, bucky balls emit from burning candles, appear in a mineral called Shungite found so far only in Russia and, aptly, as a shiny Colorado rock called Fulgurite. Look at it in a test tube — scientists create buckminsterfullerine in labs — and it looks like muddy, brown goo.

In space, buckyballs make a surprising appearance — first in gas form and, now thanks to the infrared tech via Spitzer, in material form.

The 2010 discovery of buckyball gas particles in space — also via the infrared Spitzer Space Telescope — was a stunning development at the time. This latest discovery builds squarely upon that. Reports NASA:

Spitzer later identified the (gaseous) molecules in a host of different cosmic environments. It even found them in staggering quantities, the equivalent in mass to 15 Earth moons, in a nearby galaxy called the Small Magellanic Cloud. In all of those cases, the molecules were in the form of gas. 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. The research team (at Spitzer) was able to identify the solid form of buckyballs in the Spitzer data because they emit light in a unique way that differs from the gaseous form.

Check out the image below, created by artists at Caltech, JPL and NASA. It demonstrates how gaseous buckyballs would have to be arranged to form a solid.

In the NASA release, Bill Danchi of NASA, puts it all in perspective. “The window Spitzer provides into the infrared universe has revealed beautiful structure on a cosmic scale … in yet another surprise discovery from the mission, we’re lucky enough to see the elegant structure at one of the smallest scales, teaching us about the internal architecture of existence.”

JPL in Pasadena, CA, I should note, manages the so-caled Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA, based in Washington, DC. Caltech, in turn, manages JPL for NASA.

I turned up this video, which shows some buckyball imagery and non-spherical shapes.

And in case I lost you when I said Buckminsterfullerine was named for the shape of the late architect Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, here’s a pic of a geodesic dome designed by Fuller. Picture a molecule shaped like this and you understand a buckyball, or buckminsterfullerine.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons and ArtTattler

Chemistry is a specialty of mine and I’ve always shared a fascination with many other geeks, probably, regarding the strength and potential of buckyball material. I’ll add to this story a bit about their history over the next few hours and days.