Hubble spots football shaped carbon molecules in area beyond the solar system

The carbon atoms is one of the three identified compounds that are found in the interstellar medium.

The Hubble Space Telescope was looking towards the area that exists beyond our solar system and found football-shaped molecules that are electrically charged.

The molecules are a form of carbon called Buckminsterfullerene or Buckyballs. They look like footballs because they consist of 60 carbon atoms (C60). These molecules have been seen in space before, but it's the first time they were found to be electrically charged. It was also the first instance of these molecules being spotted in the interstellar medium (ISM) — matter and radiation that exists between start systems in a galaxy. C60 is found on Earth in rocks, minerals and soot that is created during high combustion.

The interstellar medium (ISM) contains gas and dust that forms planets. It is necessary to identify the elements that are found in this area.

Martin Cordiner, lead author of the paper from the Catholic University of America, Washington, USA, said, “Fully identifying its contents provides information on the ingredients available to create stars and planets.”

Hubble spots football shaped carbon molecules in area beyond the solar system

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

The ISM is made up mostly of hydrogen and helium, but it’s spiked with many compounds that haven’t been identified. This interstellar space is very remote so scientists study how it affects the light from distant stars to identify its contents.

Ground-based telescopes cannot detect C60 because the vapour in the atmosphere blocks the view of the C60 absorption pattern. But the Hubble, since it is in space, has a clear view. The scientists had to push the telescope far beyond its sensitivity limits to detect the faint atoms.

Life on Earth is carbon-based and now it has been found in an area that was considered to be too harsh to survive.

Cordiner said, “The diffuse ISM was historically considered too harsh and tenuous an environment for appreciable abundances of large molecules to occur. 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.”

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 has been published in the journal of Astrophysical Journal Letters that talks about these findings.

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