Giant carbon buckyballs might have helped bring about life on Earth

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Buckyballs are huge molecular conglomerations of carbon atoms in the shape of soccer balls, and it turns out space is absolutely teeming with them. It's quite possible that life on Earth couldn't have happened without these wonderfully-named buckyballs.

If "buckyball" seems like an unusually silly name, even by scientific standards, at least know that it has a highly respectable namesake. Buckyballs - and their alternative name, fullerenes - are named after architect Buckminster Fuller, because their shape is very similar to his iconic geodesic domes, such as the exterior to Spaceship Earth at EPCOT. These little spheres connect together 60 carbon atoms into a single mega-molecule, and they were first discovered in labs 25 years ago.

Last year, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope was able to confirm the existence of buckyballs in space, but astronomers had no way to judge their relative quantity - was this a rare find, or one of many plentiful reserves of buckyballs? Now we know - the universe is absolutely packed with buckyballs, as Spitzer turned up the molecules throughout the Milky Way, as well as a reserve in a nearby galaxy that was fifteen times the mass of the Moon. That's a lot of carbon molecules, even when each one is made up of 60 atoms.


The sheer quantity of the buckyballs isn't the only exciting bit. The discovery also shows that buckyballs can form in nebulae rich in hydrogen, whereas it's impossible to make buckyballs in labs when hydrogen is present because it contaminates the carbon chains. It's not entirely clear why it's possible to do this out in space and not in the lab, but it means buckyballs are found where young stars form, which might also mean they're around as life begins to form on any of a new star's planets that fall in its habitable zone.

Indeed, the buckyballs were also found in large quantities in the space between young stars, which might explain how the molecules go from being out in space to carried on passing meteors and comets, which can then deposit them on a star's planets by crashing into them. This might well have been part of the story of how life began on Earth, as buckyballs can bring lots of vital materials.


Beyond all that carbon, which is central to any organic molecule, their dome-like structure means the carbon atoms can collectively act like a cage, trapping other atoms and molecules that could be useful in the formation of life. Researcher Letizia Stanghellini explains:

"Buckyballs are sort of like diamonds with holes in the middle. They are incredibly stable molecules that are hard to destroy, and they could carry other interesting molecules inside them. We hope to learn more about the important role they likely play in the death and birth of stars and planets, and maybe even life itself."