They might be microscopic, but as far as molecules go, buckyballs are absolutely gigantic. These soccer ball shaped molecules are made of 60 carbon molecules each, and new data from the Spitzer Telescope suggest they are everywhere in the universe.
Buckyballs, a shortened form of the more technical but no less awesome name Buckminsterfullerene, are so named because they resemble the geodesic domes of legendary architect Buckminster Fuller. The structure of a buckyball is made of twenty hexagons and twelve pentagons, with a carbon atom found at each vertex. These carbon buckyballs aren't the only type of fullerene, but they are by far the most common, particularly since it occurs naturally in soot.
Their unique structures makes these giant molecules useful in everything from superconductors to water purification, and we're still exploring the full scope of their possible electrical and chemical application. Scientists are also still trying to figure out just how buckyballs fit into the spread of carbon throughout the universe. Of course, carbon is the basis of all organic compounds - and, by extension, all life - on Earth, and a structure that can carry sixty all-important carbon atoms in every molecule could be vitally important to the development of life in the universe.
That's why the latest discovery of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, which is charged with studying infrared wavelengths, is so exciting. Spitzer detected specks of solid buckyballs around the binary star system XX Ophiuchi, located 6,500 light-years away. The buckyballs are all stacked together in particles "like oranges in a crate", according to lead author Nye Evans, and all these particles added together could fill a volume equivalent to 10,000 times that of Mount Everest.
We've seen buckyballs in space before, but this is the first time we've spotted them as a solid - all previous observations were of them in their gaseous state. Finding them in the form of solid is even more exciting, as it means there must be large enough quantities of the molecule around stars for them to link up into particles in the first place. This suggests they are even more widespread throughout space than we thought, and it increases the possibility that these huge molecules had a vital role to play in the emergence of life on Earth - and possibly elsewhere in the cosmos.