Researchers studying images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have confirmed the presence of electrically-charged molecules in space 'shaped like soccer balls'.
What makes these particularly interesting is the fact that they were found in the interstellar medium (ISM) — the gas and dust clouds that fill the space between planets and stars.
Clues to how planets and life were formed
As stars and planets are formed inside clouds of gas and dust, any findings inside the ISM let us know more about how Earth and other planets were formed.
"The diffuse ISM can be considered as the starting point for the chemical processes that ultimately give rise to planets and life," Martin Cordiner of the Catholic University of America, told Phys.org.
"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, continued.
Cordiner is the lead author of a paper on these findings published April 22nd in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The molecules, which were identified by Cordiner and his team, are made from a form of carbon called "Buckminsterfullerene," also known as "Buckyballs." It consists of 60 carbon atoms (C60). C60 is rare, though it has been found on Earth.
C60 has also been seen in space before, though this marks the first viewing of it an electrically charged (ionized) form present in the diffuse ISM. It is ionized when ultraviolet light from stars gives the molecules a positive charge by tearing off an electron.
"The diffuse ISM was historically considered too harsh and tenuous an environment for appreciable abundances of large molecules to occur," Cordiner told Phys.org. "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."
However, the presence of C60 in the diffuse ISM demonstrates a higher level of chemical complexity than previously thought possible in these space environments. This means there is a strong likelihood that other extremely complex, carbon-bearing molecules might arise spontaneously in space.
The team aims to continue studying the prevalence of C60 in the universe, via images from the Hubble Space Telescope, in order to find out more about the composition of the diffuse ISM in which planets, and ultimately life, were formed.