NASA satellite spots Buckyballs bouncing in space

NASA Spitzer sees molecules named look like architect Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes

nasa buckyballs
Astronomers using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope say they have spotted large soccer-ball-shaped carbon molecules known as "Buckyballs," in space for the first time.

The molecules are named for their resemblance to architect Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes, which have interlocking circles on the surface of a partial sphere, NASA stated. Observed in a laboratory 25 years ago, the molecules were thought to be floating in space, but had escaped detection until now, NASA said.

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"We found what are now the largest molecules known to exist in space," said astronomer Jan Cami of the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif.  Cami has authored a paper about the discovery in the journal Science.

Cami said Buckyballs are made of 60 carbon atoms arranged in three-dimensional, spherical structures. Their alternating patterns of hexagons and pentagons match a typical black-and-white soccer ball. The research team also found the more elongated relative of buckyballs, known as C70, for the first time in space. These molecules consist of 70 carbon atoms and are shaped more like an oval rugby ball. Both types of molecules belong to a class known officially as buckminsterfullerenes, or fullerenes, the researchers stated.

The astronomers used Spitzer's spectroscopy instrument to analyze infrared light from the planetary nebula and see the spectral signatures of the Buckyballs. The molecules are approximately room temperature -- the ideal temperature to give off distinct patterns of infrared light that Spitzer can detect. According to Cami, Spitzer looked at the right place at the right time. A century from now, the Buckyballs might be too cool to be detected.

Spitzer is a cryogenically-cooled infrared satellite designed to detect infrared radiation. 

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