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Buckyballs help solve interstellar mystery.

Soccer-ball-shaped molecules lurking in the dusty corners of the Milky Way explain part of a spectral mystery, Ewen Campbell (University of Basel, Switzerland) and colleagues report in the July 16th Nature.

Diffuse interstellar bands (DIBs) have haunted astronomers for almost a century. First discovered in 1922, these absorption lines (more than 400 of them) are seen any time astronomers look toward dust-reddened stars. But no ions or molecules tested in the lab have provided a good spectral match.

Campbell's team decided to test ionized buckminsterfullerene molecules (a.k.a. "buckyballs") to see if they might explain some of the bands. Buckyballs link 60 carbon atoms into a stable, quasi-spherical cage. Astronomers have already detected them in space in gaseous and solid forms, but neutral buckyballs don't absorb light at the right wavelengths to explain DIBs.

When cooled to interstellar temperatures, however, the ionized buckyballs' spectra provide an exact match to two diffuse interstellar bands, the team found. Other carbon-bearing molecules may explain the remaining lines.

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Author:Young, Monica
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Article Type:Brief article
Date:Nov 1, 2015
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