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Interstellar Buckyballs Discovered in North African Meteorite


One of the reasons astrophysicists can’t wait to get their hands on the new James Webb Space Telescope is because they need it to figure out where these Buckyballs came from. They made it to Earth as hitchhikers on “an unusual meteorite” called “Alamahata Sitta.

Are these Buckyballs interstellar

If you take clumps of exactly 60 carbon atoms and arrange them in a spherical cage, you get “Buckyballs.” The proper term is “Buckminsterfullerenes,” in honor of one of the hippest professors known to man. If you were stuck on an island with him, the huts would be domes.

These funky configurations of carbon are a lot more interesting than diamonds and generally found in “astrophysical environments.” They’re probably crumbs left over from the birth of our solar system itself. Researchers have been looking for it on “primitive” meteorites such as Murchison and Allende and didn’t find any.

On June 1, an international team announced they found Buckyballs on a meteorite. “Buckminsterfullerenes and other fullerenes are present in an unusual meteorite called ‘Alamahata Sitta.’

As explained by Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center, that particular group of space rocks were recovered “from the impact of small asteroid 2008 TC3, which was tracked in space before it impacted in the Nubian Desert of Sudan in 2008.

Most of the fragments recovered are a type of composition called “ureilites” which “are stony meteorites that represent the mantle of a partially melted, carbon-rich asteroid.” These ureilites were born along with the solar system as an asteroid.

For a long time after that, they were baked by radioactive decay. Then, before it completely melted, the asteroid “experienced a catastrophic impact.” It takes an impressive amount of energy to create Buckyballs from the precursors found naturally on such an asteroid type. Too much. That has scientists pondering what made them.


Mass spectrometers don’t lie

According to astronomer Muawia H. Shaddad, “we are studying these meteorites to better understand the composition and variety of materials found in asteroid 2008 TC3. Finding buckyballs in Almahata Sitta is a surprising discovery.” Professor Jenniskens took “small fragments of the Almahata Sitta ureilites from the University of Khartoum collection to laboratory astrophysicists Hassan Sabbah and Christine Joblin in France.

Once there, the team “investigated the pieces with a sophisticated mass spectrometer called Astrochemistry Research of Organics with Molecular Analyzer.” There was no doubt from the traces which appeared that AROMA caught a whiff of Buckminsterfullerene. They found related fullerenes “up to a typical size of about 100 carbon atoms.

Each and every one of the samples “showed a distribution of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that indicated that PAHs and fullerenes had come from different sources.” They went back and tested the Murchison and Allende meteorites with the instrument.

What they learned confirmed that there wasn’t a single fullerene on the other primitive meteorites. That verifies that Buckyballs don’t associate with “carbonaceous chondrite meteorites.” That left them with a loose end and scientists hate those.

Trying to figure out for sure where the Buckyballs in the Almahata Sitta originated, the obvious source was “that the fullerenes formed from the graphite and nano-diamonds common in ureilites. However, this process would require very high temperatures and pressures.” Too high. “The most catastrophic event experienced by the Almahata Sitta ureilites was the breakup of the ureilite parent asteroid by a giant impact.” That’s not enough to do it.

Although this was a high-temperature event, it was still not hot enough to have created fullerenes from pre-existing carbon phases.” The other big possibility is it came from deep space. They call that “interstellar heritage.” It “opens perspectives not only for the formation of the solar system but also for the search for fullerenes in astrophysical environments.” Christine Joblin says that’s “a topic that should progress rapidly with the upcoming observations from the James Webb Space Telescope.

What do you think?

Written by Staff Editor

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