Monday, July 26, 2010

Spaceballs: The (Academic) Sequel.

It's almost like NASA's version of the World Cup. Astronomers using the Spitzer Space Telescope announced last week that they have observed soccer-ball shaped molecules called "buckyballs" in the planetary nebula Tc 1. First isolated in a lab at Rice University in 1985, scientists have long predicted that these molecules would one day be found in space. While previous evidence of naturally-occurring buckyballs was tenuous at best, astronomers can now claim their existence with unprecedented certainty.

Buckyballs are named for their resemblance to architect Richard Buckminster Fuller's famed geodesic domes. Image courtesy of Paul Lowry.

Buckminsterfullerenes, or buckyballs, are hollow, spherical molecules composed of pentagonal and hexagonal linkages of carbon atoms. Since their creation 25 years ago, these and other fullerenes have become increasingly popular in the world of nanotechnology due to their extreme durability and uniquely resilient chemical structure. Buckyballs are also highly aromatic, meaning that their electrons are free to move between adjacent carbon bonds rather than reacting with other, external molecules. Chemically speaking, they are more like an inert gas (such as helium or argon) than a single carbon atom. For these reasons, buckyballs and their cylindrical cousins, carbon nanotubes, continue to be the focus of much research in medicine, engineering and materials science.

The most common type of buckyball is C60. This molecule consists of 60 carbon atoms arranged as shown. Image courtesy of ltamblyn.

Researchers would also like to learn more about the characteristics of naturally created buckyballs. Enter Jan Cami, an astronomer with the University of Western Ontario and the SETI Institute in California, and leader of the group that made the recent discovery. Her team was able to detect these elusive fullerenes in a carbon-rich region of nebula Tc 1. Such regions are common, as planetary nebulae result when a dying star begins to throw off its outer layers of hydrogen, helium, carbon, and other heavier elements. The astronomers actually discovered the buckyballs by accident, catching sight of their unique spectral signature while observing the nebula in infrared light. "When we saw these whopping spectral signatures, we knew immediately that we were looking at one of the most sought-after molecules," said Cami. "We are particularly excited because they have unique properties that make them important players for all sorts of physical and chemical processes going on in space." Buckyballs have already staked their claim in many exciting fields on Earth. We will have to wait and see what they have to tell us about the rest of the universe.

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