Hubble finds tiny 'electric soccer balls' in space, helps solve interstellar mystery

phys.org | 11/2/2011 | Staff
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Scientists using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have confirmed the presence of electrically-charged molecules in space shaped like soccer balls, shedding light on the mysterious contents of the interstellar medium (ISM) - the gas and dust that fills interstellar space.

Since stars and planets form from collapsing clouds of gas and dust in space, "The diffuse ISM can be considered as the starting point for the chemical processes that ultimately give rise to planets and life," said Martin Cordiner of the Catholic University of America, Washington. "So fully identifying its contents provides information on the ingredients available to create stars and planets." Cordiner, who is stationed at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is lead author of a paper on this research published April 22nd in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Molecules - Cordiner - Team - Form - Carbon

The molecules identified by Cordiner and his team are a form of carbon called "Buckminsterfullerene," also known as "Buckyballs," which consists of 60 carbon atoms (C60) arranged in a hollow sphere. C60 has been found in some rare cases on Earth in rocks and minerals, and can also turn up in high-temperature combustion soot.

C60 has been seen in space before. However, this is the first time an electrically charged (ionized) version has been confirmed to be present in the diffuse ISM. The C60 gets ionized when ultraviolet light from stars tears off an electron from the molecule, giving the C60 a positive charge (C60+). "The diffuse ISM was historically considered too harsh and tenuous an environment for appreciable abundances of large molecules to occur," said Cordiner. "Prior to the detection of C60, the largest known molecules in space were only 12 atoms in size. Our confirmation of C60+ shows just how complex astrochemistry can get, even in the lowest density, most strongly ultraviolet-irradiated environments in the Galaxy."

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