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NASA Telescope Finds 'Buckyballs' in Space

Buckyballs in Space

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has detected buckyballs -- intriguing, miniature-soccer-ball-shaped molecules - in interstellar space for the first time.NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC/Caltech)

A soccer ball-shaped carbon molecule that some scientists think may have helped seed life on Earth is more common in the universe than initially believed.

Using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, researchers spotted the carbon spheres known as 'buckyballs' around three dying sun-like stars in the Milky Way and in the space between stars. The telescope also detected the cosmic balls floating around a dying star in a nearby galaxy.

"Buckyballs are carbon molecules in the shape of a cage and they are very tough and hard to destroy," said Kris Sellgren, a professor of astronomy at The Ohio State University in Columbus, OH. 

She noted that although life forms, let alone a single molecule of DNA, absolutely dwarf a buckyball, "single atoms or small molecules can become trapped and can survive inside the cage while the buckyball safely travels through the harsh conditions of space."

The telescope previously found buckyballs only in one location in space.

The new findings appear online Thursday in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Scientists hope to better understand the role buckyballs play in the birth and death of stars and planets.