Tiny electric soccer balls detected in space could solve an interstellar mystery

Shedding light on the mysterious contents of the interstellar medium (ISM).

This is an artist's concept depicting the presence of buckyballs in space. Buckyballs, which consist of 60 carbon atoms arranged like soccer balls, have been detected in space before by scientists using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The new result is the first time an electrically charged (ionized) version has been found in the interstellar medium. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This is an artist's concept depicting the presence of buckyballs in space. Buckyballs, which consist of 60 carbon atoms arranged like soccer balls, have been detected in space before by scientists using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The new result is the first time an electrically charged (ionized) version has been found in the interstellar medium. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Using NASA’s Hubble space telescope, scientists have detected the existence of electrically-charged molecules in space shaped like soccer balls, highlights the mysterious contents of the interstellar medium (ISM).

Since the generation of stars and planets due to the collision of dust and gas clouds, the diffuse ISM can be considered as the beginning of the chemical processes that ultimately give rise to planets and life. Identification of its contents could offer detailed insights on the ingredients available to create stars and planets.

Scientists identified molecules that 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 seen in space previously. Be that as it may, 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+).

Martin Cordiner of the Catholic University of America, Washington said, “The diffuse ISM was historically considered too harsh and tenuous an environment for appreciable abundances of large molecules to occur. Before 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.”

“Life as we know it is based on carbon-bearing molecules, and this discovery shows complex carbon molecules can form and survive in the harsh environment of interstellar space. In some ways, life can be thought of as the ultimate in chemical complexity. 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.”

Helium and hydrogen found in the sun make up most of the ISM. Hydrogen clouds in the ISM can cool, collapse under the force of gravitation and eventually form new stars. If this gas did not exist, no new stars could form.

Since interstellar space is so remote, scientists study how it affects the light from distant stars to identify its contents. As starlight passes through space, elements and compounds in the ISM absorb and block specific colors (wavelengths) of the light. When scientists analyze starlight by separating it into its component colors (spectrum), the colors that have been absorbed appear dim or are absent.

Every element or compound has a unique absorption pattern that acts as a fingerprint enabling it to be identified. In any case, some absorption patterns from the ISM spread a broader range of colors, which seem not the same as any known atom or molecule on Earth. These absorption patterns are called Diffuse Interstellar Bands (DIBs). Their identity has remained a mystery ever since they were discovered by Mary Lea Heger, who published observations of the first two DIBs in 1922.

A DIB can be assigned by finding a precise match with the absorption fingerprint of a substance in the laboratory. However, there are millions of different molecular structures to try, so it would take many lifetimes to test them all.

Cordiner said, “Today, more than 400 DIBs are known, but (apart from the few newly attributed to C60+), none has been conclusively identified. Together, the appearance of the DIBs indicates the presence of a large amount of carbon-rich molecules in space, some of which may eventually participate in the chemistry that gives rise to life. However, the composition and characteristics of this material will remain unknown until the remaining DIBs are assigned.”

Decades of investigations have failed to find an exact match with any DIBs until the work on C60+. In the new work, the team was able to match the absorption pattern seen from C60+ in the lab to that from Hubble observations of the ISM, confirming the recently claimed assignment by a team from the University of Basel, Switzerland, whose lab studies gave the required C60+ comparison data.

The big problem for detecting C60+ using conventional, ground-based telescopes, is that atmospheric water vapor blocks the view of the C60+ absorption pattern. In any case, orbiting above most of the atmosphere in space, the Hubble telescope has a clear, unobstructed view. Nevertheless, they still had to push Hubble far beyond its usual sensitivity limits to stand a chance of detecting the faint fingerprints of C60+.

The stars that scientists observed were all blue supergiants and located in the plane of our Galaxy, the Milky Way. The Milky Way’s interstellar material is primarily located in a relatively flat disk, so lines of sight to stars in the Galactic plane traverse the greatest quantities of interstellar matter, and therefore show the strongest absorption features due to interstellar molecules.

The detection of C60+ in the diffuse ISM supports the team’s expectations that very large, carbon-bearing molecules are likely candidates to explain many of the remaining, unidentified DIBs. This suggests that future laboratory efforts measure the absorption patterns of compounds related to C60+, to help identify some of the remaining DIBs.

The team is seeking to detect C60+ in more environments to see just how widespread buckyballs are in the Universe. According to Cordiner, based on their observations so far, it seems that C60+ is very widespread in the Galaxy.

The study is published in the Astrophysical Journal.