Human beings may have only discovered how to create the one-atom-thick sheets of carbon atoms known as graphene in 2004 but it appears the universe could have been churning out the stuff since much earlier than that. While not conclusive proof its existence in space, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has identified the signature of graphene in two small galaxies outside our own. If confirmed, it would be the first-ever cosmic detection of the material and could hold clues to how carbon-based life forms such as ourselves developed.
The infrared-sensing Spitzer telescope identified signs of graphene in planetary nebulae - the material shed by dying stars - within the Magellanic Clouds galaxies that orbit our Milky Way galaxy. While obviously not a viable source of graphene for Earth-bound applications - such as transparent touchscreens and ultrafast transistors - the potential discovery could help researchers learn more about how the material is created. NASA says that understanding chemical reactions involving carbon in space may hold clues to how carbon-based life on Earth developed.
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In addition to graphene, Spitzer also spotted a related molecule called C70, which, along with graphene and molecules called "buckyballs," or C60, are members of the fullerene family. Buckyballs, which are named after the architectural domes of Buckminster Fuller, are carbon spheres containing 60 carbon atoms arranged like a soccer ball, whereas C70 molecules contain 70 atoms and are shaped more like a rugby ball.
Spitzer first definitively detected the presence of both buckyballs and C70 in space in July 2010. It later spotted buckyballs equivalent in mass to 15 full moons in the Small Magellanic Cloud, demonstrating that fullerenes and other complex molecules could form in hydrogen-rich environments. This latest detection of C70 in the Magellanic Clouds marks the first time the chemical has been observed outside our galaxy.
Fullerenes have been found in meteorites carrying extraterrestrial gases, and very recently water has been encapsulated in buckyballs using new laboratory techniques. These findings offer the possibility that long ago, fullerenes may have helped transport materials from space to Earth to kick-start life. Astronomers speculate that graphene, buckyballs and C70 might be formed in space when shock waves generated by dying stars break apart hydrogen-containing carbon grains.