|7/16/2015 by mdc|
|Elizabeth Gibney reports that spheres of carbon-60 are responsible for mysterious cosmic-light features. Carbon cages floating in the space between the stars have been confirmed as the cause of cosmic-light features that have puzzled astronomers for almost 100 years.|
In 1919, Mary Lea Heger, a graduate student at the University of California Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, saw that particular wavelengths of light were dimmed in the emissions from certain stars, in a way that seemed unrelated to the stars themselves. As astronomers spotted more such features, they attributed them to molecules in the interstellar gas that absorb wavelengths of light on their way to Earth, and called them diffuse interstellar bands (DIB). Some 400 DIBs have now been observed, from across the Milky Way and beyond.
Dust grains, carbon chains and even floating bacteria emerged as candidates to explain these features, but none proved conclusive. Now, a laboratory analysis of the light absorbed by buckyballs, hollow, soccer-ball shaped molecules made up of 60 carbon atoms, under space-like conditions, has provided direct match for DIBs seen in 1941. They are the first DIBs to be explained.
The finding opens the door to identifying other molecules floating in interstellar space. As far as he is concerned this is the scientific paper of the year, says Harry Kroto, the British chemist who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of buckminsterfullerene (buckyballs) with colleagues Robert Curl and Richard Smalley.
Finding buckyballs in interstellar space shows that they are more abundant than previously thought, says Kroto. And the study suggests buckyballs can remain intact for millions of years and travel over great distances between the stars, adds McCall.