PASADENA, Calif., Feb. 23 (UPI) -- Astronomers using data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope say they've discovered buckyballs in a solid form in space for the first time.
Previously the microscopic carbon spheres had been found only in gas form in the universe, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., reported Wednesday.
Buckyballs, formally known as buckminsterfullerine, are made up of 60 carbon atoms arranged into a hollow sphere like a soccer ball and named after architect Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes.
The Spitzer telescope detected tiny specks of matter consisting of stacked buckyballs around a pair of stars called "XX Ophiuchi" 6,500 light-years from Earth, and found enough to fill the equivalent in volume of 10,000 Mount Everests, JPL said.
"These buckyballs are stacked together to form a solid, like oranges in a crate," astronomer Nye Evans of Keele University in England said. "The particles we detected are minuscule, far smaller than the width of a hair, but each one would contain stacks of millions of buckyballs."
The research team said it was able to identify the solid form of buckyballs in the Spitzer data because they emit light in a unique way that differs from the gaseous form.
"This exciting result suggests that buckyballs are even more widespread in space than the earlier Spitzer results showed," said Mike Werner, project scientist for Spitzer at JPL. "They may be an important form of carbon, an essential building block for life, throughout the cosmos."