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Hubble detects Buckyballs in space solving mystery of interstellar space

Researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope have confirmed that electrically charged molecules are present in the space, which gives information on the contents of Interstellar Medium (ISM) – the gas and dust particles that fill the interstellar space. The study has been published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Martin Cordiner, Catholic University of America who is currently at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre said that the interstellar space can be considered as the initial point of the chemical reactions which ultimately leads to the formation of planets and life. As a result, identifying the contents of this diffused medium gives knowledge on the elements needed for the creation of planets.

Cordiner and his team of researchers identified the molecules that are a form of carbon known as “Buckminsterfullerene“, also called Buckyballs. It consists of an arrangement of 60 carbon atoms and is found rarely in rocks and minerals of Earth.

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C60 has been identified in space in the past. But this is the first time that there has been confirmation about the presence of an electrically charged version in the diffuse ISM. Ionization of C60 occurs when UV light rays from the stars remove an electron, resulting in the formation of a positive charge (C60+). It was earlier considered that the harsh conditions of diffused ISM are not suitable for the presence of large molecules. Before C60 detection, the biggest molecule to be present in the space had only 12 atoms. The presence of a positively charged C60 shows that astrochemistry is quite complex even in the low density, high UV radiated areas.

Formation of life is based on carbon molecules and this discovery shows that complex carbon molecules can survive even in the harshest conditions in interstellar space. Due to the remote location of interstellar space, scientists study its contents with the help of its effects of light on distant stars. When researchers analyze the starlight with the help of its spectrum, the absorbed colors either appear dim or are not present. Some absorption patterns cover a greater range of colors, which is different from any atom on Earth. These are known as Diffuse Interstellar Bands(DIBs). They were first discovered by Mary Lea Heger in 1922.

There are more than 400 DIBs that are known at present, but they have not yet been identified. But the absorption pattern of C60+ was properly matched with the observations of ISM by Hubble Telescope. The Hubble Telescope had a clear view as it orbits above the atmosphere in space, which most of the ground-based telescopes did not have.

The team now aims to detect more C60+ to identify how widespread it is in the Universe.

About the author: Kalpit Veerwal
Kalpit Veerwal is a second year Computer Science undergraduate at IIT Bombay. He is well known for being the only person to score 360/360 in JEE (Main). He is registered in the Limca Book of Records for the same. A blogger in his free time, he has also secured top ranks in various exams held in India and the world.

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