Yes, there really are buckyballs in space

(buckyball) ChemicalGraphics/iStockphoto; (space background) NASA, ESA, and K. Sahu (STScI)

Yes, there really are buckyballs in space

Zapped with cosmic rays and ultraviolet light, the space between the stars is so hostile that most astronomers once thought it couldn't possibly harbor something as fragile as molecules. Nevertheless, observers have found lots of interstellar molecules, some simple and others complex. Now, as chemists report online today in Nature, buckyballs—complex molecules with 60 carbon atoms arranged into what look like the geodesic domes of R. Buckminster Fuller—do indeed exist in the space between the stars. Two decades ago, astronomers found interstellar spectral lines at near-infrared wavelengths and said they likely arose from carbon-60 molecules that had lost one electron each. In the new work, the chemists cooled gaseous buckyballs in the laboratory to frigid interstellar temperatures and measured the spectrum of the gas, finding lines at wavelengths of 9577 and 9632 angstroms. That matches what the astronomers saw and, because our solar system arose from interstellar material, suggests that some of the carbon now in our bodies was once in the form of buckyballs.