RSSArchive for July, 2010

NASA’s dancing robot

  • Six-limbed robot prototype
  • Able to lift heavy payloads
  • Could be used on the Moon or Mars

NASA’s All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer (ATHLETE) vehicle concept is based on six wheels at the ends of six multi-degree-of-freedom limbs.

ATHLETE uses its wheels for efficient driving over stable, gently rolling terrain. Because each limb has enough degrees of freedom for use as a general-purpose leg, the wheels can be locked and used as feet to walk out of excessively soft, obstacle rich, or other extreme terrain.

ATHLETE is envisioned as a heavy-lift utility vehicle to support human exploration of the lunar or Martian surface, useful for unloading bulky cargo from stationary landers and transporting it long distances over varied terrain.

To demonstrate this concept, several prototype vehicles have been developed for testing at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

The 1st generation ATHLETE prototype, built in 2005, consists of 6, six-degree-of-freedom limbs mounted to the corners of a hexagonal ring 2.75m (9 ft) wide. These vehicles have a maximum standing height of just over 2m (6.5 ft), weigh approximately 850 kg (1875 lb) and can carry a maximum payload of 300 kg (660 lb) in Earth gravity. Two identical prototypes were constructed in 2005, and one of these is still operational in 2010.

The 2nd generation ATHLETE prototype was constructed in 2009 and is implemented as a coordinated system of two Tri-ATHLETEs, fully independent three-limbed robots.

This innovation allows a straightforward cargo handling strategy: two Tri-ATHLETEs dock to opposite sides of a cargo pallet, forming a six-limbed symmetrical vehicle, work together to move and emplace the cargo, then undock and depart.

This strategy provides all the advantages of the six-limbed concept for cargo or habitat transport with the additional benefits of flexibility and modularity. The 2nd generation prototype is designed to demonstrate cargo handling at half the anticipated lunar scale.

The robot stands to a maximum height of just over 4m (13 ft) and has a payload capacity of 450 kg (990 lb) in Earth gravity.

ATHLETE deploying a drill attachment on a cliff face in 2009.

ATHLETE deploying a drill attachment on a cliff face in 2009.

A side benefit of the wheel-on-limb approach is that each limb has sufficient degrees-of-freedom for use as a general-purpose manipulator (hence the name “limb” instead of “leg”).

The prototype ATHLETE vehicles have quick-disconnect tool adapters on the limbs that allow tools to be drawn out of a “tool belt” and manoeuvred by the limb. A rotating power-take-off from the wheel actuates the tools, so that they can take advantage of the 1+ horsepower (745+ watt) motor in each wheel to enable drilling, gripping or other power-tool functions.

This work was performed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), California Institute of Technology, under contract with NASA. ATHLETE is being developed by JPL as part of the Human-Robot Systems (HRS) Project managed by Robert Ambrose of the Johnson Space Centre (JSC). HRS is one of several projects funded by the NASA Exploration Technology Development Program (ETDP) that is developing new technology in support of human exploration.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL-Caltech.

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Glimpse of glittering stars and gas

GLIMPSE360 and 2MASS image

Two bright stars illuminate clouds of gas in this false-colour image made from Spitzer Space Telescope GLIMPSE360 and Two Micron All Sky Survey data. The gas is composed of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), molecules that on Earth are found in car exhausts and grilled food on BBQs!

  • Spitzer space telescope making Milky Way map
  • Focusing on our galaxy’s outer reaches

NASA’s Spitzer space telescope—which is similar to the Hubble Space Telescope but is optimised to pick up infrared radiation (heat)—is partway through producing a huge map of the outskirts of our Milky Way galaxy.

Our galaxy is made up of a central bulge surrounded by octopus-like spiral arms. The overall shape is that of a disc…round, with a thicker middle and thinner edges.

Our Solar System is located on one of the spiral arms, about two-thirds of the way out from the central bulge.

The Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire 360, or GLIMPSE360, is a follow-up to the GLIMPSE and GLIMPSE3D surveys, which focused on the inner parts of our galaxy.

GLIMPSE360 will look outwards to where the Milky Way’s star fields begin to fade out and intergalactic space begins.

“GLIMPSE360 will see to the edge of the Milky Way galaxy better than any telescope has before,” says Barbara Whitney, principal investigator for the survey, Senior Scientist at the University of Wisconsin and a Senior Research Scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

Astronomers don’t know much about the outer limits of the Milky Way, and a number of puzzles remain to be solved.

GLIMPSE360 and 2MASS image

The bubble in the centre of this gas cloud is being "inflated" by strong winds blown from young, hot stars. (False-colour image.)

One of them is how and why stars are born in regions where there is little star-making material—interstellar clouds of gas and dust.

“It’s like looking into the wilderness of our galaxy,” says Whitney. “While mapping the stars and dust out there, we hope to answer some major questions about an environment that is very different from the inner Milky Way.”

Studies of other galaxies have shown that there can be a surprising amount of star formation going on in the outer reaches.

Being an infrared telescope, Spitzer was launched with a cooling system to keep it’s own equipment very cold in order to prevent stray heat from interfering with its observations. But the coolant fluid ran out in early 2009, and the telescope has been operating in “warm mode” ever since. It can’t do quite the same observations as before, but it is still an incredibly capable facility that is in very good technical health.

“We look forward to what GLIMPSE360 will show us,” Whitney says. “The adventure is just getting started.”

Story by Jonathan Nally, Editor,

Images courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / 2MASS / B. Whitney (SSI/University of Wisconsin).

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Coming soon: Hubble’s successor

The Webb Telescope will be the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. It will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of planetary systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System.

Comparison of Hubble and Webb primary mirrors

The Webb Telescope's segmented mirror system will be almost three times as big as Hubble's mirror.

Originally known as the “Next Generation Space Telescope” (NGST) and considered the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, the telescope was renamed in September 2002 after former NASA administrator, James Webb.

More information about the Webb Telescope

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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“Failed star” orbits Sun look-alike

PZ Tel A and PZ Tel B

The Sun-like star, PZ Tel A and its brown dwarf companion, PZ Tel B. The majority of light from PZ Tel A has been blocked using specialised image analysis techniques. For distance comparison, the size of Neptune's orbit is shown.

  • Brown dwarf, a “failed star”, spotted
  • 36 times the mass of Jupiter
  • Orbits a younger version of our Sun

Astronomers have made a direct image of brown dwarf in a close orbit around a young, Sun-like star. Brown dwarfs are a class of astronomical bodies that are bigger than planets but smaller than genuine stars. They’re often called “failed stars”.

The team was led by Beth Biller and Michael Liu from the University of Hawaii (UA). They used the huge 8-metre Gemini South telescope in Chile, which is operated by a consortium of countries, including Australia.

Dubbed PZ Tel B, the brown dwarf was spotted at a distance of only 18 astronomical units (AU) from its parent star, known as PZ Tel A.

An astronomical unit is a standard measurement used by astronomers, being the average distance between the Sun and the Earth. At 18 AU, PZ Tel B is at the equivalent of the orbit of Uranus in our Solar System.

The brown dwarf is not visible in an image made back in 2003, suggesting it was at that time closer to and lost in the glare of its parent star.

“Because PZ Tel A is a rare star being both close and very young, it had been imaged several times in the past” said Laird Close, a professor at UA’s Steward Observatory. “So we were quite surprised to see a new companion around what was thought to be a single star.”

The new observations confirm that the brown dwarf is currently moving outward from the main star. They also show that it is 36 times the mass of Jupiter, the largest planet in our Solar System.

“PZ Tel B travels on a particularly eccentric orbit—in the last 10 years, we have literally watched it careen through its inner solar system,” said Beth Biller, lead author of the scientific paper. “This can best be explained by a highly eccentric, or oval-shaped, orbit.”

Brown dwarf size compared to Jupiter, the Sun and the Earth

The size of a brown dwarf compared to Jupiter, the Sun and the Earth (to scale). Brown dwarfs are more massive than planets and less massive than stars, but have similar diameters to planets such as Jupiter.

A young version of our Sun

The host star, PZ Tel A, is similar to our Sun, but at 12 million years of age is about 400 times younger. Astronomers are keen to study it and other such stars to learn more about the formation and evolution of Sun-like stars.

PZ Tel A is expected to retain a surrounding cloud of gas and dust from which planets might form. The gravitational pull of the brown dwarf could upset the formation of any such planets.

The find was made using the Near-Infrared Coronagraphic Imager (NICI) instrument, which blocks out much of the glare of a star and enables nearby regions to be seen.

The brown dwarf is so close to its parent star that it required all the power of NICI, plus adaptive optics—which help to remove the blurring effect of the Earth’s atmosphere—plus special image enhancing techniques, to pick it out of the glare.

NICI is so powerful that it can detect objects 1 million times fainter than their host stars at very close distances.

An international team is using NICI to conduct a 300-star survey, and it will be fascinating to see what they find.

“We are just beginning to glean the many configurations of solar systems around stars like the Sun,” said NICI Campaign leader Michael Liu. “The unique capabilities of NICI provide us with a powerful tool for studying their constituents using direct imaging.”

Also involved in the PZ Tel B research were graduate students Eric Nielsen, Jared Males and Andy Skemer.

Story by Jonathan Nally, Editor,

Images by Jon Lomberg / Gemini Observatory / Beth Biller / Gemini NICI Planet-Finding Campaign.

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Hot star: don’t get too close!

WR 22 and the Carina Nebula

The hot, massive, young star in the centre of this image is WR 22, a member of the rare class of Wolf–Rayet stars, seen against the backdrop of the Carina Nebula. At the distance of the nebula, this image covers an area of 72 x 72 light-years.

A spectacular new image from the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Wide Field Imager at the La Silla Observatory in Chile shows the brilliant and unusual star WR 22 and its colourful surroundings.

WR 22 is a very hot and bright star that is shedding its atmosphere into space at a rate many millions of times faster than the Sun. It is located in the outer part of the dramatic Carina Nebula, a huge cloud of gas and dust from which it and many other stars formed.

Very massive stars live fast and die young. Some of them have such intense radiation passing through their thick atmospheres late in their lives that they shed gas into space many millions of times more quickly than relatively sedate stars such as our Sun.

These rare, very hot and massive objects are known as Wolf–Rayet stars, after the two French astronomers who first identified them in the mid-nineteenth century. Wolf-Rayet stars typically have surface temperatures between 25,000 and 50,000 degress Celsius. (The Sun’s surface temperature is only 5,500 degrees.)

WR 22 is one of the most massive examples yet measured, is one of many exceptionally brilliant stars associated with the beautiful Carina Nebula (also known as NGC 3372) in the southern Milky Way. The outer part of this huge region of star formation forms the colourful backdrop to this image.

See the full-size, high-resolution image here (0.7MB, will open in a new window)

The central part of nebula lies off to the left of WR 22, and can be seen in the wider view below.

A wider view of the Carina Nebula

A wider view of the Carina Nebula, showing WR 22 at right and a bright conglomeration at left that hides another huge and famous star, Eta Carinae.

See the full-size, high-resolution version of the wide-field image here (0.7MB, will open in a new window)

The subtle colours of the nebula are a result of the interactions between the intense ultraviolet radiation coming from hot massive stars, including WR 22, and the vast gas clouds, mostly hydrogen, from which they formed.

WR 22 is a part of a binary star system and has been measured to have a mass at least 70 times that of the Sun. Although it is over 5,000 light-years from Earth, it is so bright that it can just be faintly seen with the unaided eye under good conditions.

Adapted from information issued by ESO.

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Moons with a view

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn since July 2004. The ringed planet has more than 60 moons, and Cassini has taken numerous images of them.

Sometimes, when the angles are just right, Cassini’s camera can fit more than one moon into its field of view—with one moon in the background and one in the foreground.

Many of the moons orbit near or within the planet’s famous rings, so the rings often appear in the images too.

Here’s a selection of recent shots showing some of Saturn’s natural satellites, large and small.

Rhea, Prometheus and Saturn's rings

In this view, the moon Rhea (1,530km wide) is on the far side of the rings. Much smaller Prometheus (86km wide) is on the nearside, orbiting between the main portion of the rings and the thin outer F ring. Camera distance to Rhea: approx. 1.6 million km. Camera distance to Prometheus: approx. 1 million km.

Dione and Titan

The cratered and cracked moon Dione (1,120km wide) seems to hang suspended in place in front of Titan (5,150km wide) in the background. Camera distance to Dione: approx 1.8 million km. Camera distance to Titan: approx. 2.7 million km.

Tethys and Dione

Dione, in the foreground of this image, appears darker than the moon Tethys (1,070km wide). Tethys appears brighter because it has a higher albedo than Dione, meaning Tethys reflects more sunlight. Camera distance to Dione: approx. 1.2 million km. Camera distance to Tethys: 1.8 million km.

Epimetheus and Janus

Saturn's moon Epimetheus (86km wide) moves in front of the larger moon Janus (179km wide) as seen by the Cassini spacecraft. Camera distance to Epimetheus: approx. 2.1 million km. Camera distance to Janus: 2.2 million km.

Janus and Prometheus

In this image, Janus is on the far side of Saturn's rings. Prometheus is on the nearside, orbiting in the gap between the main rings and the outer, thin F ring. Camera distance to Janus: approx. 1.1 million km. Camera distance to Prometheus: 1 million km.

Images courtesy of NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute.

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Unique view of Jupiter

Image of Jupiter taken by New Horizons

A New Horizons spacecraft Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) image of Jupiter and two of its moons, taken on June 24 when the spacecraft was 2.4 billion kilometres from the giant planet.

  • New Horizons spacecraft bound for Pluto
  • Has taken images of Jupiter and Neptune
  • Pluto rendezvous set for July 14, 2015

NASA’s Pluto-bound spacecraft, New Horizons—which in December 2009 passed the halfway mark in its 10-year journey to the distant world—has turned around to take a look back into the middle part of the Solar System.

On June 24, the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) was trained on Jupiter, the largest planet in the Solar System.

Artist's impression of New Horizons at Pluto

Artist's impression of how the New Horizons spacecraft will look during its fly-by of Pluto in July 2015.

A little over three years ago, New Horizons made a close fly-by of Jupiter to pick up speed using a “gravitational slingshot”. Now, in July 2010, the spacecraft is 2.4 billion kilometres from the planet—1,000 times further than it was at the moment of closest approach during that fly-by.

“The picture is a dramatic reminder of just how far New Horizons, moving about a million miles [1.6 million kilometres] a day, has travelled,” says mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute.

Despite the huge distance, the disc of Jupiter is readily apparent due to the planet’s large size. And because from LORRI’s perspective there was a good angle between Jupiter and the Sun, the planet looks a bit like a half full Moon.

And speaking of moons, two of Jupiter’s can faintly be seen—Ganymede on the left and Europa on the right.

Calibration image

The main aim of the Jupiter image was to test LORRI’s susceptibility to sunlight. LORRI is designed to operate in the distant, pitch black environment of Pluto, where sunlight is hundreds of times dimmer than it is here on Earth. So the camera is very sensitive; too much light would damage it. Which is why the Jupiter image was made with an exposure of only 0.009 second, and why the two moons appear so faint.

“We wanted to see how much stray sunlight would creep into these Jupiter pictures, especially since we’ll make observations of the Pluto system in a similar geometry after the spacecraft passes Pluto in 2015,” says Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

“We generally prefer to look at targets in the opposite direction from the Sun. In fact, LORRI is calibrated for the low light we’ll see in the Pluto system and Kuiper belt. Pointing too close to the Sun could damage the camera, but we decided it was safe to try to observe Jupiter.”

“The observations were successfully executed and the images look great.”

Image of Neptune taken by New Horizons of almost 3.5 billion kilometres.

Neptune as seen by New Horizons from a distance of around 3.4 billion kilometres.

A glance at Neptune

LORRI also was pointed toward another of the Solar System’s planets, Neptune. The huge blue world is around six times further from the Sun than Jupiter, so in the LORRI image it looks just like a fuzzy star.

The 100-millisecond exposure, made on June 23 when New Horizons was still 23 astronomical units from Neptune (one astronomical unit is the distance between the Sun and the Earth), was part of a navigation system test. New Horizons is equipped with “optical navigation”, a fancy term that means trajectory corrections during the final stages of its approach to Pluto will be aided by taking pictures of the planet and comparing its apparent position with its calculated position.

Even though no detail can be made out on Neptune’s disc, scientists can still use the images to learn more about the planet’s atmosphere, by seeing how sunlight scatters off the molecules.

On course for Pluto

At the beginning of July, the New Horizons team instructed the spacecraft to make a 35.6-second burn of its thruster. Calculations had shown the craft drifting slightly off course, due to a tiny amount of force applied by heat coming from the spacecraft’s radioisotope power source and reflecting off the main antenna!

With the burn correctly executed, New Horizons is on target for its closest approach to Pluto at 7:49am US EDT on July 14, 2005.

Due to mass constraints, the craft is not equipped with a braking rocket, so it will not be able to stop. Instead, it will go sailing straight past the tiny dwarf planet at a great rate of knots, and then head out into deep space. Mission planners are hoping they can find one or more candidate Kuiper Belt Objects—the small, icy worlds that inhabit the outer Solar System—and steer New Horizons to another rendezvous.

Hubble Space Telescope images of Pluto's surface

Our very best views of Pluto's surface, made from multiple Hubble Space Telescope images taken in 2002-03. From 200 days out, New Horizons will begin to take better photos than these.

Even though New Horizons will be unable to stop at Pluto, that doesn’t mean it won’t get a good look at the small planet and its three known moons. From roughly 200 days before the encounter right through until many days after, the spacecraft will take images that are better than the Hubble Space Telescope can produce.

Story by Jonathan Nally, Editor,

Images courtesy of NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute / ESA/ M. Buie.

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Space spin-offs

This video shows how NASA technology designed to check for toxic gases on the launch pad, is now being pressed into service to help monitor dangerous volcanoes around the world.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / Sandra Joseph and Kevin O’Connell.

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Incredible Hubble video

This Hubblecast features a spectacular new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image—one of the largest ever released of a star-forming region. It highlights N11, part of a complex network of gas clouds and star clusters within our neighbouring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud. This region of energetic star formation is one of the most active in the nearby Universe.

Download an amazing screen wallpaper image of N11:

Adapted from information issued by NASA / ESA / Jesús Maíz Apellániz (Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía, Spain).

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Buckyballs in space!

Artist's conception of buckyballs in space

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has at last found buckyballs in space, as illustrated by this artist's conception showing the carbon balls coming out from the type of object where they were discovered—a dying star and the material it sheds, known as a planetary nebula. (The nebula Tc 1 does not show up well in images, so a picture of the NGC 2440 nebula, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, was used in this artist's conception.)

  • Soccer ball-shaped molecules detected in a nebula
  • Buckyballs are collections of 60 carbon atoms
  • Spitzer Space Telescope in “right place at the right time”

How’s this for a kick-off? Astronomers using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope have discovered carbon molecules, known as “buckyballs,” in space for the first time. Buckyballs are soccer-ball-shaped molecules that were first seen in a laboratory 25 years ago.

They are named for their resemblance to architect Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, which have interlocking circles on the surface of a partial sphere.

Buckyballs were thought to float around in space, but had escaped detection until now.

“We found what are now the largest molecules known to exist in space,” said astronomer Jan Cami of the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.

“We are particularly excited because they have unique properties that make them important players for all sorts of physical and chemical processes going on in space.”

Cami authored a paper about the discovery that appeared last Thursday in the journal Science.

Buckyballs are made of 60 carbon atoms arranged in three-dimensional, spherical structures. Their alternating patterns of hexagons and pentagons match a typical black-and-white soccer ball.

The research team also found the more elongated relative of buckyballs, known as C70, for the first time in space. These molecules consist of 70 carbon atoms and are shaped more like an oval rugby ball.

Both types of molecules belong to a class known officially as buckminsterfullerenes, or fullerenes.

Spotted in an ageing star system

The Cami team unexpectedly found the carbon balls in a planetary nebula (a cloud of gas) named Tc 1. Planetary nebulae are the remains of stars like the Sun, which shed their outer layers of gas and dust as they age.

A compact, hot star, or white dwarf, at the centre of the nebula illuminates and heats these clouds of material that has been shed.

The buckyballs were found in these clouds, perhaps reflecting a short stage in the star’s life, when it sloughs off a puff of material rich in carbon.

The astronomers used the Spitzer Space Telescope’s spectroscopy instrument to analyse infrared light from the planetary nebula and see the spectral signatures of the buckyballs.

Spectrum of Tc 1 showing the signatures of buckyballs

Spectral data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope show the signatures of buckyballs in space.

These molecules are approximately room temperature; the ideal temperature to give off distinct patterns of infrared light that Spitzer can detect.

According to Cami, Spitzer looked at the right place at the right time. A century from now, the buckyballs might be too cool to be detected.

The data from Spitzer were compared with data from laboratory measurements of the same molecules and showed a perfect match.

We did not plan for this discovery,” Cami said. “But when we saw these whopping spectral signatures, we knew immediately that we were looking at one of the most sought-after molecules.”

Intriguing molecules

In 1970, Japanese professor Eiji Osawa predicted the existence of buckyballs, but they were not observed until lab experiments in 1985.

Researchers simulated conditions in the atmospheres of aging, carbon-rich giant stars, in which chains of carbon had been detected. Surprisingly, these experiments resulted in the formation of large quantities of buckminsterfullerenes.

The molecules have since been found on Earth in candle soot, layers of rock and meteorites.

The study of fullerenes and their relatives has grown into a busy field of research because of the molecules’ unique strength and exceptional chemical and physical properties. Among the potential applications are armour, drug delivery and superconducting technologies.

Sir Harry Kroto, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Bob Curl and Rick Smalley for the discovery of buckyballs, said, “This most exciting breakthrough provides convincing evidence that the buckyball has, as I long suspected, existed since time immemorial in the dark recesses of our galaxy.”

Previous searches for buckyballs in space, in particular around carbon-rich stars, proved unsuccessful. A promising case for their presence in the tenuous clouds between the stars was presented 15 years ago, using observations at optical wavelengths. That finding is awaiting confirmation from laboratory data.

More recently, another Spitzer team reported evidence for buckyballs in a different type of object, but the spectral signatures they observed were partly contaminated by other chemical substances.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / ESA / STScI / JPL-Caltech / University of Western Ontario.

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