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Buckyballs Discovered in Another Galaxy

Forms of carbon compounds (foreground) against a planetary nebula

Artist's representation showing some forms of carbon compounds (foreground) against a depiction of a planetary nebula similar to the one detected in another galaxy called the Small Magellanic Cloud. Each pattern of carbon atoms has its own properties and its own infrared signature. Like diamonds, buckyballs are extremely strong and durable.

More about this Image
Astronomers using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope have detected for the first time, arrangements of carbon atoms known as buckyballs outside of the Miliky Way galaxy. The discovery of buckyballs in the Small Magellanic Cloud--a dwarf galaxy containing several hundred million stars--suggests that these complex molecules may be present around many stars, where it was predicted they would be unlikely to form.

Using the Spitzer's infrared spectrometer instrument, dozens of planetary nebulae that were known to have hydrogen-rich shells of gas, ejected from a dying star, were searched. The ejected material contained carbon grains (much like soot) that condensed further from the star. In this cooling process--and under exposure to ultraviolet radiation--the grains not only can form fullerenes, but other carbon molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)--that can be created on Earth in the exhaust of diesel engines. The four, fullerene-rich planetary nebulae detected are within reach of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory's (NOAO) telescopes for follow-up spectroscopy, as well as the large sample of planetary nebulae that was searched for fullerene. Meticulous follow-up is forthcoming to determine the temperature and composition of their hot gas flows, with the aim of determining the physical and evolutionary characteristics of the fullerene-rich objects compared to the general planetary nebula population.

NOAO is a national center for research on ground-based optical and infrared astronomy supported by the National Science Foundation. To learn more about this discovery, see the NOAO news release "Buckyballs Discovered in Another Galaxy." (Date of Image: October 2010)

Credit: Pete Marenfeld (NOAO)
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