Scientists believe they understand how the mysterious interstellar "bucky balls" – complicated carbon molecules that appear scattered across the space between stars – are actually formed.
The "buckyballs" are officially named Buckminsterfullerene, named after the futuristic American Buckminster Fuller and the suffix "-ene" to show that they are an unsaturated hydrocarbon.
Buckminster Fuller was responsible for several popular geodesic domed designs, with which the molecule's structure closely resembles – as does a soccer ball with the arrangement of pentagons and hexagons on the sides.
In scientific terms, the molecule is known as Carbon 60 (C60) and is a spherical molecule composed of 60 carbon atoms arranged in rings of five and six atoms.
Scientists had assumed that the interstellar space vacuum had only a few very light molecules scattered around it, mostly single or double atom molecules.
But a few years ago huge carbon molecules of complications with 60 or 70 atoms were detected in them – and surprisingly they were made purely of carbon atoms.
On Earth, lab environments are needed to create the C60, with scientists bringing together sources of pure carbon, such as graphite.
In space, the C60 was detected in the nebulae, the remnants of an explosion of a dying star – an environment that has 10,000 hydrogen molecules for every carbon molecule.
"Any hydrogen must destroy the synthesis of fullerene," explained University of Arizona doctoral student in astrobiology and chemistry, Jacob Bernal, who is the lead author of the "buckyballs" article.
"If you have a box of balls, and for every 10,000 hydrogen balls you have one carbon, and keep shaking them, how likely are you to get 60 carbons together? It's very unlikely."
Bernal and his team found that the C60 was derived from silicon carbide dust in the nebulae.
This dust is hit by high temperatures, shock waves and high energy particles that work to drain silicon from its surfaces and leave only carbon behind.
"These large molecules are dispersed because dying stars eject their material into the interstellar medium – the spaces between the stars – thus representing their presence outside the planetary nebulae," the article explains.
And because of their purity and shape, "bucky balls" are very resistant to radiation damage, allowing them to retain their shape and survive for billions of years if protected from the hostile environment of space.
"The conditions in the universe where we expect complex things to be destroyed are really the conditions that create them," Bernal said, adding that the implications of the findings are endless.
"If this mechanism is forming C60, it is probably forming all kinds of carbon nanostructures," said co-author Professor Lucy Ziurys.
"And if you read the chemical literature, it is believed that they are all synthetic materials made only in the laboratory, and yet interstellar space seems to be producing them naturally."