NASA finds buckminsterfullerenes in space

Nasa’s Spitzer telescope has detected the spectral signatures of “buckyballs” in a planetary nebula named Tc 1. A planetary nebula comprises dust and gas around an aging white dwarf star. They are giant molecules of pure carbon. The buckyball is a hollow sphere with chemical formula C60. Like a geodesic dome, it’s a very stable structure.

The researchers also found a larger, more elongated fullerene with formula C70.The researchers were not looking for them in particular but were lucky to find them in the course of other research. The star’s temperature, in the infrared, is ideal for spectroscopy of fullerenes.

Possible fullerenes have been detected in interstellar gases, but have not yet been confirmed. They are important because of their unusual chemistry.

In 1970, researcher Eiji Osawa calculated that C60 molecules could exist, but they were not detected until 1985 when researchers found them by simulating the atmosphere of an aging, carbon-rich star.  Sir Harry Kroto, Bob Curl, and Rick Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery of buckyballs. They have since been found in candle soot!

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