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NASA'S Spitzer Finds Solid Buckyballs in Space

Feb. 22, 2012

Trent J. Perrotto 
Headquarters, Washington      

Whitney Clavin 
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. 

Robert Massey 
Royal Astronomical Society 
+44 (0) 20 7734 4582 x214/+44 (0)794 124 8035 

RELEASE: 12-057


WASHINGTON -- Astronomers using data from NASA's Spitzer Space 
Telescope have, for the first time, discovered buckyballs in a solid 
form in space. Prior to this discovery, the microscopic carbon 
spheres had been found only in gas form. 

Formally named buckminsterfullerene, buckyballs are named after their 
resemblance to the late architect Buckminster Fuller's geodesic 
domes. They are made up of 60 carbon molecules arranged into a hollow 
sphere, like a soccer ball. Their unusual structure makes them ideal 
candidates for electrical and chemical applications on Earth, 
including superconducting materials, medicines, water purification 
and armor. 

In the latest discovery, scientists using Spitzer detected tiny specks 
of matter, or particles, consisting of stacked buckyballs. They found 
them around a pair of stars called "XX Ophiuchi," 6,500 light-years 
from Earth. 

"These buckyballs are stacked together to form a solid, like oranges 
in a crate," said Nye Evans of Keele University in England, lead 
author of a paper appearing in the Monthly Notices of the Royal 
Astronomical Society. "The particles we detected are miniscule, far 
smaller than the width of a hair, but each one would contain stacks 
of millions of buckyballs." 

Buckyballs were detected definitively in space for the first time by 
Spitzer in 2010. Spitzer later identified the molecules in a host of 
different cosmic environments. It even found them in staggering 
quantities, the equivalent in mass to 15 Earth moons, in a nearby 
galaxy called the Small Magellanic Cloud. 

In all of those cases, the molecules were in the form of gas. The 
recent discovery of buckyballs particles means that large quantities 
of these molecules must be present in some stellar environments in 
order to link up and form solid particles. The research team was able 
to identify the solid form of buckyballs in the Spitzer data because 
they emit light in a unique way that differs from the gaseous form. 

"This exciting result suggests that buckyballs are even more 
widespread in space than the earlier Spitzer results showed," said 
Mike Werner, project scientist for Spitzer at NASA's Jet Propulsion 
Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "They may be an important form of 
carbon, an essential building block for life, throughout the cosmos." 

Buckyballs have been found on Earth in various forms. They form as a 
gas from burning candles and exist as solids in certain types of 
rock, such as the mineral shungite found in Russia, and fulgurite, a 
glassy rock from Colorado that forms when lightning strikes the 
ground. In a test tube, the solids take on the form of dark, brown 

"The window Spitzer provides into the infrared universe has revealed 
beautiful structure on a cosmic scale," said Bill Danchi, Spitzer 
program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "In yet another 
surprise discovery from the mission, we're lucky enough to see 
elegant structure at one of the smallest scales, teaching us about 
the internal architecture of existence." 

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., manages 
the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission 
Directorate in Washington. Science operations are conducted at the 
Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in 
Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. 

For information about previous Spitzer discoveries of buckyballs, 




For more information about Spitzer, visit: 



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