Astronomers have found a large and very special type of molecule in space. It’s C60, a molecule made of 60 carbon atoms. It’s also called a buckyball or “fullerene” for Buckminster Fuller – this molecule resembles Bucky Fuller’s geodesic domes.
Jan Cami It looks pretty much exactly the same as one of these black and white soccer balls in terms of the structure, but on a microscopic scale.
Jan Cami is an astronomer at the University of Western Ontario and California’s SETI Institute. He and his team reported this discovery in summer 2010, in the journal Science. He said this buckyball is the largest molecule ever found in space – about a nanometer in size – or about one ten-thousandth the thickness of a human hair. They found it by examining light from the vicinity of a planetary nebula – a site of expanding gases surrounding an aging star 6,500 light years away. Cami said buckyballs were first identified in laboratories here on Earth in the 1980s.
Jan Cami: Since then there’s been an entirely new research field that’s built upon the properties of these buckyballs because they have unique physical and chemical and electrical properties. The whole field of nanotechnology on Earth was actually triggered by these buckyballs.
Cami speculated that buckyballs might have been abundant on early Earth, and, because they’re so complex, might even have helped kickstart life on Earth.
Jan Cami: The idea that a lot of astronomers have these days is that if you bring to the early earth some complex molecule, if you can somehow provide seed material in terms of complex molecules to the early Earth, that might actually help kickstart the formation of life of Earth, and even on other planets.
He said that there are some buckyballs, or what scientists also call C60, that occur naturally on Earth. Scientists have found them in the past few decades, after they molecules were first discovered in a laboratory setting.
Jan Cami: We have found very minute quantities of these molecules in specific types of minerals, they also naturally occur – again, in very minute quantities – after lightning strikes.
But scientists now know these molecules are abundant in space. Cami found so many molecules that, if you put them all together, they’d have the same mass as the moon. He added that scientists have persisted in looking for buckyballs in space for decades because they thought there was a good chance the might be there
Jan Cami: They’re among the most stable materials that we know on Earth, and for that reason astronomers suggested they could withstand the harsh conditions of space.
Cami noted that his discovery of the “buckyball” (or C60 molecule, as many astronomers call it) was made by using the NASA’s Spitzer infrared telescope. The molecules were accidentally found – and in great numbers — by astronomers who studying planetary nebula Tc1. Dr. Cami initially reported this discovery in July 2010, in the journal Science.
Beth Lebwohl researches, writes and helps produce science content in audio and video formats for EarthSky. She is one of the authors on EarthSky.org, a script-writer for our podcasts, and helps host our English science podcasts in 90-second, 8-minute and 22-minute formats. Beth came to EarthSky in 2006 from the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Astrophysics, where she was surrounded by some of the greatest telescope-building, equation-wielding, code-writing physicists of our time. And they made her think . . . this science thing . . . it's pretty cool.