The most abundant carbon in the universe has the shape similar to that of a soccer ball: it is called fullerene and is formed by 60 atoms (C60) with the addition of a proton. Although the molecule was discovered about thirty years ago by the chemist Harold Kroto, who was awarded the Nobel prize in 1996 with colleagues Robert Curl and Richard Smalley, only now the presence of fullerene has been confirmed in cosmic dusts.
This is what emerges from the study published in the journal Nature Astronomy by the Dutch University Radboud, coordinated by Jos Oomens. The result will help to understand many aspects of planet formation.
The authors of the research focused on the study of the importance of the symmetry of molecules in nature. Comparing, in particular, the infrared light emitted by some planetary nebulae with that of the fullerene molecules in the laboratory, in their form with an extra proton, they discovered that this compound "is very abundant in interstellar gas and dust clouds", has explained Oomens.
This is the cosmic matter that can act as an incubator for the birth of new stars, and therefore of other planets. Fullerene, according to experts, is one of the most complex molecules identified so far in these interstellar clouds. "The more we learn about the chemical composition of these cosmic clouds - concluded Oomens - more information we can discover about the origins of our own planet".
Artistic representation of the most widespread carbon form in the universe, fullerene (source: Radboud University)