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Tiny Electric ‘Soccer Balls’ Floating In Space Shed Light On Interstellar Mystery

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In the photo is an artist's concept of buckyballs, which are 60 carbon atoms arranged like soccer balls. New research marks the first time an electrically charged version of this compound has been found in the interstellar medium.  ( NASA | JPL-Caltech )

With a peek through the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists have confirmed the presence of electrically charged molecules shaped like soccer balls in interstellar space.

These soccer ball-like molecules are actually a type of carbon named "Buckminsterfullerene," which has been dubbed as "Buckyballs." It consists of 60 carbon atoms that are all arranged in a hollow sphere. With the discovery of these C60 molecules, astronomers gain valuable insights on the mysterious contents of the space between star systems, which is known as the interstellar medium or ISM.

The ingredients of stars and planets come from the clouds of gas and dust of the ISM, making it an important field of study for astronomers.

"The diffuse ISM can be considered as the starting point for the chemical processes that ultimately give rise to planets and life," lead study author Martin Cordiner of the Catholic University of America, Washington explained in a statement on NASA. "So fully identifying its contents provides information on the ingredients available to create stars and planets."

Finding Soccer Balls In Space

In the findings published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, Cordiner and his colleagues reveal details on the first confirmation of the presence of ionized C60 in the diffuse ISM.

While scientists have seen C60 in space before, this marks the first time that an ionized or electrically charged version of the molecule is confirmed in the diffuse ISM. Ionized C60 occurs when the ultraviolet light from stars rips off an electron from the molecule, resulting in a positive charge.

According to Cordiner, scientists used to believe that the diffuse ISM environment was too harsh and tenuous for significant amounts of large molecules to occur, but their recent findings show just how complex astrochemistry can be. The discovery of C60 in interstellar space demonstrates that complex carbon molecules can exist in these harsh environments, which is an interesting revelation given that life on Earth is based on carbon molecules.

"In some ways, life can be thought of as the ultimate in chemical complexity," Cordiner continued. "The presence of C60 unequivocally demonstrates a high level of chemical complexity intrinsic to space environments, and points toward a strong likelihood for other extremely complex, carbon-bearing molecules arising spontaneously in space."

The Mysteries Of The ISM

Most of the ISM is made up of hydrogen and helium, but there many other compounds in the mix that haven't been identified yet. To identify these compounds, scientists analyze starlight as the various elements and compounds in the ISM absorb and block certain wavelengths of light. Each element or compound has its own unique absorption pattern known as Diffuse Interstellar Bands. The DIBs act as a compound's fingerprint, allowing it to be identified by scientists if they find an exact match with the absorption pattern of a substance in the laboratory.

However, there are millions and millions of molecular structures to check in the laboratory, so matching one to a DIB is infinitely challenging. While more than 400 DIBs have been found over decades of study, there have been no confirmed matches until the recent discovery of C60.

The presence of C60 in the diffuse ISM suggests that large, carbon-bearing molecules could be good candidates for some of the unidentified DIBs with future laboratory experiments potentially focusing on compounds related to this molecule.

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