After years of study, scientists have finally confirmed the presence of buckyballs in space. The findings have been published in Nature.
Buckyballs are molecules made up of 60 carbon atoms. The arrangement resembles a football as the bonds between the atoms are pentagonal and hexagonal in shape. They were discovered in laboratory back in 1985 and have, since then, been the object of fascination of chemists. Astronomers have also shown interest in the molecules: they came up with theories that buckyballs and their ions were seen in space. A team from the University of Basel have now succeeded in proving the hypothesis.
The researchers had proposed that space buckyballs they claimed to have observed were made in the midst of stars and then pushed out. They explained that when the stars burns up, shooting off the dust and matter constituting its outer layers, the buckyballs are ejected along with the stellar matter. Some of the buckyballs are ionised in the process and end up bearing positive charges.
“We managed to identify the C60+ molecules by comparing our laboratory measurements with astronomical ones. The astronomical measurements are carried out by looking in directions of certain stars which are known to have the diffuse interstellar clouds between them and ourself. Optical telescopes are used for this,” co-author John P. Maier said in a statement to IFLScience.
Detecting the presence of buckyballs from telescope observations required the knowledge of the absorption spectrum of buckyball ions. Therefore, the researchers created the spectra in laboratory. The buckyball ion light signature was spotted by shining light through a sample of the molecules and measuring the wavelengths of light that was getting absorbed. This was then compared with observations from space.
The researchers had to recreate space conditions in their lab, such as vacuum environments and temperatures near absolute zero.
“The laboratory measurements are technically very demanding, and it took us 20 years to achieve this,” explained Maier.
But, fortunately, measuring the signature of a buckyball ion proved their theory beyond doubt. The study is the first to have unambiguously confirmed the presence of buckyballs in space.