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Carbon ‘buckyballs’ found in space for the first time


Astronomers have serendipitously found soccer-ball shaped carbon molecules in the nebula around a distant, white-dwarf star. The molecules are the largest ones ever found in space, and are part of a third type of carbon—the other two being graphite and diamond.

“We did not plan for this discovery,” said Jan Cami from the University of Western Ontario, London, Canada, who led the team making the discovery using NASA’s orbiting Spitzer infrared telescope. “But when we saw these whopping spectral signatures, we knew immediately that we were looking at one of the most sought-after molecules.” (NASA) The team published their findings in Science.

The molecules resemble the so-called ‘geodesic domes’ built by architect Buckminster Fuller, and are therefore called ‘buckyballs’ .

The buckyball molecule, C60, is about a nanometre across and consists of 60 carbon atoms arranged in a spherical, 3-D structure resembling a soccer ball. The molecule is exceptionally strong, and has chemical properties that scientists have long thought could make it useful in technological applications ranging from medicine to superconductivity and armor development.

The researchers also found the molecule C70, which is made up of 70 carbon atoms and is shaped like a stretched-out sphere. The two types of carbon together are estimated to make up about 3 percent of the carbon around the star, which is located in the planetary nebula Tc-1 in the constellation Ara, about 6,500 light-years away. (

The data from the Spitzer infrared spectrometer matches laboratory spectral fingerprints of C60 perfectly.

The carbon buckyball was first discovered in the laboratory in 1985, also by accident, when researchers tried to simulate an ageing, carbon-rich star—in order to understand how carbon chains form in space. One of the scientists, Sir Harry Kroto, was awarded the Nobel prize in 1996 for the discovery.

“The experiments were set up to make those long carbon chains, and then something unexpected came out – these soccer ball type molecules, which just looked weird,” Cami told the BBC. “And now it turns out that those conditions that were deliberately created in a laboratory actually occur in space too – we just had to look in the right place.”

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC). Hubble image copyright NASA,

ESA and K. Noll (STScI)


  1. Report this comment

    Miriam Frankel said:

    Thanks for spotting the typos. They have been taken care of.

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    Bernard Foing said:

    Buckyballs in space seen for the second time

    Astronomers have just reported in the Science magazine (published online 22 July, the detection of buckyball C60 and C70 in a planetary nebula, using data from Spitzer infrared telescopes .

    The buckyballs were detected around one source. The bands of C60 and C70 can be seen.

    This is a great confirmation of the existence of fullerenes in the sky, obtained for the second time after our detection in 1994.

    We have measured previously the spectral fingerprint signature of buckyballs in many directions in the galaxy.

    We have reported in an article published in Nature in 1994* the evidence for ionized bucky balls in the space between stars.

    We found the molecule looking the spectrum towards distant stars in the near infrared. We deteced two aborption feaures in the near IR at positions as measured in the laboratory for the

    C60+ ionised molecule. This C60+ feature has been observed in many lines of sight and seems ubiquitous in the interstellar medium.

    We estimated that C60+ could account up to 1 % of cosmic carbon in the diffuse interstellar medium. It is exciting to think that some of the carbon that is part of our body, one day was part of a space bucky ball.

    Bernard Foing

    • Reference:

    Detection of two interstellar absorption bands coincident with spectral features of C60+

    B. H. Foing & P. Ehrenfreund

    Nature 369, 296 – 298 (26 May 1994);

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    Miriam Frankel said:

    Dear Bernard Foing,

    Thanks for the post. I will follow it up with NASA (I’m linking to their press release), and see what they say.


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    Miriam Frankel said:

    For the interested readers: The authors actually mention Foing’s paper in their study in Science. They say that Foing’s detection of C60+, which is ionized C60, was the first promising case in the search for fullerenes in space up until now but that it still awaits confirmation from cold, gas-phase laboratory spectra.

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    Reece Longden said:

    This is an excellent discovery for science. What is the third type of carbon then?

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    Shahidur Rahman Sikder said:

    Molecule: the smallest possible quantity of a substance that can exist separately without losing the chemical characteristic.

    Pensive it mentioned below the little serving as an example of my research result & see- How our Universe is!

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