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Curated by RSF Research Staff

Buckyballs mysteriously show up in cold space and warp starlight

Astrophile is Joshua Sokol's monthly column in New Scientist magazine on curious cosmic objects, from the solar system to the far reaches of the multiverse:

...Recent discoveries have shown that the chemical reactions between stars can build the constituents of biological molecules like amino acids and sugars. These substances, raining from space, may have contributed to the origin of life on Earth.

But these reactions are intricate and hard to track, leaving us searching for beacons – a molecule we understand that could help us navigate through the fog. This is where the small stuff becomes a big deal. Hang on as we zoom down.

Spacefaring buckyballs

To envision a buckyball bouncing around in outer space, picture it like a little football: 60 atoms of carbon arranged in a rough sphere.

In the mid 20th century, architect Buckminster Fuller (also known as “Bucky”) and others had figured out that a network of pentagons and hexagons would fold into a stable geodesic structure. As it turned out, nature had already come to the same realisation. In 1985, earthbound researchers cooked a disc of graphite, a carbon mineral, in a plasma chamber to recreate the conditions around a red giant star.  To their surprise, they discovered they had made weird new forms of carbon – buckyballs and other examples of even larger molecules that looked like carbon cages.

They chose to nod to Fuller by calling them fullerenes – thankfully – after first considering names like ballene, spherene, soccerene, and carbosoccer.

But, even after astronomers began to look for fullerenes in space, they took two and a half decades to find. It wasn’t until 2010 that a team led by Jan Cami at the University of Western Ontario in Canada found their spectral signatures in the colorful gas around a dying star.

Since then, traces of fullerenes have popped up again and again in many different environments. A 2015 paper argued that their presence in the Milky Way may even explain weird spectral features of interstellar space – certain wavelengths of light from distant stars that are being mysteriously absorbed on the way to us. These features have been unexplained for over a century.

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