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Physical Chemistry

Buckyballs In Space

Astronomy: Gas-phase C60+ is identified as one of the molecules responsible for producing mysterious diffuse interstellar infrared bands

by Elizabeth K. Wilson
July 20, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 29

Buckyball in space!
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Buckyballs help produce mysterious space spectra.

Astronomers report that the buckminsterfullerene ion C60+ is the first molecule conclusively identified in the mysterious, pervasive infrared spectrum stemming from diffuse interstellar clouds (Nature 2015, DOI: 10.1038/nature14566). Buckyballs have been observed spectroscopically in both gas and solid form in densely populated areas around stars or in dense interstellar clouds. But the molecules that produce the so-called diffuse interstellar bands (DIBs), which are found in sparsely populated areas of interstellar space, have remained a mystery. Although some candidates have been proposed, including propadienylidene, H2C=C=C, no definitive identifications have been made. Scientists have previously proposed that two spectral lines in DIBs might be attributed to C60+. John P. Maier of the University of Basel and colleagues have now produced spectra from gas-phase C60+ in their lab and matched two lines to the two lines in DIBs. The work “securely identifies C60+ as a component of the interstellar medium,” write George Washington University’s Pascale Ehrenfreund and the European Space Agency’s Bernard Foing in an accompanying perspective.


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