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Play Satellite Insight . . . on your iPhone!

NASA Space Place

“Satellite Insight” for iPhone and other iOS devices is now available on iTunes. It’s free! It’s challenging! It’s fun! Colored blocks represent different types of data gathered by GOES-R’s amazing science instruments. The data blocks fall into columns on a grid. Your job is to bundle like data types together and store them safely before the data grid overflows.  It is the very first iPhone app from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (in partnership with NASA). Check it out at http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/satellite-insight/id463588902?mt=8.

 

"It is engaging and supports a good cause so I suggest you download it." - AppAdvice.com

 

Distributed by Laura K. Lincoln, on behalf of the Space Place Team.

 

Check out our great sites for kids:

http://climate.nasa.gov/kids

http://scijinks.gov

http://spaceplace.nasa.gov
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Solar System Size Surprise

NASA Space Placeby Dr. Tony Phillips

  
This artist's concept shows NASA's two Voyager spacecraft exploring a turbulent region of space known as the heliosheath, the outer shell of the bubble of charged particles around our sun. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
Click image for larger view
News flash: You may be closer to interstellar space than you previously thought.

A team of researchers led by Tom Krimigis of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory announced the finding in the June 2011 issue of Nature. The complicated title of their article, “Zero outward flow velocity for plasma in a heliosheath transition layer,” belies a simple conclusion: The solar system appears to be a billion or more kilometers smaller than earlier estimates.

The recalculation is prompted by data from NASA’s Voyager 1 probe, now 18 billion kilometers from Earth. Voyagers 1 and 2 were designed and built and are still managed by NASA’s Jet propulsion Laboratory. Aging but active, the spacecraft have been traveling toward the stars since 1977 on a heroic mission to leave the solar system and find out what lies beyond.

To accomplish their task, the Voyagers must penetrate the outer walls of the heliosphere, a great bubble of plasma and magnetism blown in space by the solar wind. The heliosphere is so big, it contains all the planets, comets, and asteroids that orbit the sun. Indeed many astronomers hold that the heliosphere defines the boundaries of the solar system. Inside it is “home.” Outside lies the Milky Way. For 30+ years, the spacecraft have been hurtling toward the transition zone. Voyager 1 is closing in.

Much of Voyager 1’s long journey has been uneventful. Last year, however, things began to change. In June 2010, Voyager 1 beamed back a startling number: zero. That’s the outward velocity of the solar wind where the probe is now.

“This is the first sign that the frontier is upon us,” says Krimigis.

Previously, researchers thought the crossing was still years and billions of kilometers away, but a new analysis gave them second thoughts. Krimigis and colleagues combined Voyager data with previously unpublished measurements from the Cassini spacecraft. Cassini, on a mission to study Saturn, is nowhere near the edge of the solar system, but one of its instruments can detect atoms streaming into our solar system from the outside. Comparing data from the two locations, the team concluded that the edge of the heliosphere lies somewhere between 16 to 23 billion kilometers from the sun, with a best estimate of approximately 18 billion kilometers.

Because Voyager 1 is already nearly 18 billion kilometers out, it could cross into interstellar space at any time — maybe even as you are reading this article.

“How close are we?” wonders Ed Stone, Caltech professor and principal investigator of the Voyager project since the beginning. “We don't know, but Voyager 1 speeds outward a billion miles every three years, so we may not have long to wait.”

Stay tuned for the crossing.

For more about the missions of Voyager 1 and 2, see http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/. Another Voyager project scientist, Merav Opher, is the guest on the newest Space Place Live cartoon interview show for kids at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/space-place-live.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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New GOES-R to Give More Tornado Warning Time

NASA Space Placeby Dauna Coulter and Dr. Tony Phillips

  
This GOES image shows the storms that spurred the intense April 27 tornado outbreak in the southern U.S. Animation showing the development of weather can be seen at http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/NaturalHazards/view.php?id=50347.
Click image for larger view
So far this spring, more than 1,400 tornadoes have struck the U.S. Some of them have cut jaw-dropping trails of destruction across the countryside and, tragically, across inhabited communities, too. Hundreds of lives have been lost in the onslaught.

Throughout the season, the National Weather Service has routinely issued tornado alerts. In the case of the Alabama tornadoes of April 27th, forecasters warned of severe weather five full days before the twisters struck. Because they couldn’t say precisely where the twisters would strike, however, many of their warnings went unheeded.

“If people get a hurricane warning, they often evacuate the area,” notes NOAA's Steve Goodman. “But we react differently to tornado warnings.”

Perhaps it’s because tornadoes are smaller than hurricanes, and the odds of a direct hit seem so remote. Recent pictures from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Joplin, Missouri, however, show the perils of playing those odds. Goodman believes that more precise warnings could save lives.

To fine-tune tornado warnings, NOAA will soon launch the first in a series of next-generation weather satellites — GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites-R series). The spacecraft is brimming with advanced sensors for measuring key ingredients of severe weather including winds, cloud growth, and lightning.

“GOES-R will be the first geostationary spacecraft to carry a lightning sensor,” says Goodman, the GOES-R Program Senior Scientist. “Studies show that sudden changes in the total lightning activity correlate with storm intensity &madash; and with tornadoes.”

The lightning mapper will detect and map not only cloud-to-ground lightning, but also bolts within and between clouds. The kind of cloud-to-ground lightning we see from our front yards accounts for only 15-20 percent of total lightning. To get a clear idea of a storm's intensity, meteorologists need to know about all the lightning — a view GOES-R can provide.

All by itself, the lightning mapper will provide 7 minutes more lead time in tornado warnings, according to Goodman. GOES-R’s state-of-the-art instruments will also improve long-range forecasts.

“The satellite's Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI), for instance, will provide a much clearer picture of clouds,” says NOAA research meteorologist Tim Schmit. Compared to lesser instruments already in orbit, ABI can better detect super-cold “overshooting tops,” evidence of enormous energy and upward velocity that correlate with subsequent severe weather.

“Accurate advanced notice of high-risk tornadic conditions can cue officials to close schools and businesses even before tornadoes are actually detected,” says Schmit.

Forecasters doubt tornadoes can ever be predicted with 100% accuracy. The twisters are just too capricious. GOES-R, however, is a step in the right direction.

Find out more about GOES-R’s unprecedented capabilities at http://www.goes-r.gov. Young people can learn more about tornadoes and all kinds of other weather at http://scijinks.gov.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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Finding Planets among the Stars

NASA Space Placeby Dr. Tony Phillips

  
Exoplanets are easier to see directly when their star is a dim, red dwarf.
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Strange but true: When it comes to finding new extra-solar planets, or exoplanets, stars can be an incredible nuisance.

It’s a matter of luminosity. Stars are bright, but their planets are not. Indeed, when an astronomer peers across light years to find a distant Earth-like world, what he often finds instead is an annoying glare. The light of the star itself makes the star's dim planetary system nearly impossible to see.

Talk about frustration! How would you like to be an astronomer who's constantly vexed by stars?

Fortunately, there may be a solution. It comes from NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer, an ultraviolet space telescope orbiting Earth since 2003. In a new study, researchers say the Galaxy Evolution Explorer is able to pinpoint dim stars that might not badly outshine their own planets.

“We've discovered a new technique of using ultraviolet light to search for young, low-mass stars near the Earth,” said David Rodriguez, a graduate student of astronomy at UCLA, and the study's lead author. “These M-class stars, also known as red dwarfs, make excellent targets for future direct imaging of exoplanets.”

Young red dwarfs produce a telltale glow in the ultraviolet part of the electromagnetic spectrum that Galaxy Evolution Explorer can sense. Because dwarf stars are so numerous — as a class, they account for more than two-thirds of the stars in the galaxy — astronomers could reap a rich bounty of targets.

In many ways, these stars represent a best-case scenario for planet hunting. They are close and in clear lines-of-sight, which generally makes viewing easier. Their low mass means they are dimmer than heavier stars, so their light is less likely to mask the feeble light of a planet. And because they are young, their planets are freshly formed, and thus warmer and brighter than older planetary bodies.

Astronomers know of more than five hundred distant planets, but very few have actually been seen. Many exoplanets are detected indirectly by means of their “wobbles” — the gravitational tugs they exert on their central stars. Some are found when they transit the parent star, momentarily dimming the glare, but not dimming it enough to reveal the planet itself.

The new Galaxy Evolution Explorer technique might eventually lead to planets that can be seen directly. That would be good because, as Rodriguez points out, “seeing is believing.”

And it just might make astronomers feel a little better about the stars.

The Galaxy Evolution Explorer Web site at http://www.galex.caltech.edu describes many of the other discoveries and accomplishments of this mission. And for kids, how do astronomers know how far away a star or galaxy is? Play “How Old do I Look” on The Space Place at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/whats-older and find out!

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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Milky Way Safari

NASA Space Placeby Dauna Coulter and Dr. Tony Phillips

  
Volunteers study infrared images of our galaxy from the Spitzer Space Telescope, identifying interesting features using the special tools of the Milky Way Project, part of the Citizen Science Alliance Zooniverse web site.
Safari, anyone? Citizen scientists are invited to join a hunt through the galaxy. As a volunteer for Zooniverse's Milky Way Project, you'll track down exotic creatures like mysterious gas bubbles, twisted green knots of dust and gas, and the notorious “red fuzzies.”

“The project began about four months ago,” says astrophysicist Robert Simpson of Oxford University. “Already, more than 18,000 people are scouting the Milky Way for these quarry.”

The volunteers have been scrutinizing infrared images of the Milky Way's inner regions gathered by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Spitzer's high resolution in infrared helps it pierce the cloaking haze of interstellar gas and dust, revealing strange and beautiful structures invisible to conventional telescopes. The Milky Way Project is helping astronomers catalogue these intriguing features, map our galaxy, and plan future research.

“Participants use drawing tools to flag the objects,” explains Simpson. “So far they've made over a million drawings and classified over 300,000 images.”

Scientists are especially interested in bubble-like objects believed to represent areas of active star formation. “Every bubble signifies hundreds to thousands of young, hot stars. Our volunteers have circled almost 300,000 bubble candidates, and counting,” he says.

Humans are better at this than computers. Computer searches turn up only the objects precisely defined in a program, missing the ones that don't fit a specified mold. A computer would, for example, overlook partial bubbles and those that are skewed into unusual shapes.

“People are more flexible. They tend to pick out patterns computers don't pick up and find things that just look interesting. They're less precise, but very complementary to computer searches, making it less likely we'll miss structures that deserve a closer look. And just the sheer numbers of eyes on the prize mean more comprehensive coverage.”

Along the way the project scientists distill the volunteers' data to eliminate repetitive finds (such as different people spotting the same bubbles) and other distortions.

The project's main site (http://www.milkywayproject.org ) includes links to a blog and a site called Milky Way Talk. Here “hunters” can post comments, chat about images they've found, tag the ones they consider especially intriguing, vote for their favorite images (see the winners at http://talk.milkywayproject.org/collections/CMWS00002u ), and more.

Zooniverse invites public participation in science missions both to garner interest in science and to help scientists achieve their goals. More than 400,000 volunteers are involved in their projects at the moment. If you want to help with the Milky Way Project, visit the site, take the tutorial, and … happy hunting!

You can get a preview some of the bubbles at Spitzer’s own web site, http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/. Kids will enjoy looking for bubbles in space pictures while playing the Spitzer concentration game at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/spitzer-concentration/.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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Cosmic Recount

NASA Space Placeby Dr. Tony Phillips

  
Astronomers have recently found that some galaxies have as many as 2000 small stars for every 1 massive star. They used to think all galaxies had only about 500 small stars for every 1 massive star.
Click image for larger view
News flash: The Census Bureau has found a way to save time and money. Just count the biggest people. For every NBA star like Shaquille O'Neal or Yao Ming, there are about a million ordinary citizens far below the rim. So count the Shaqs, multiply by a million, and the census is done.

Could the Bureau really get away with a scheme like that? Not likely. Yet this is just what astronomers have been doing for decades.

Astronomers are census-takers, too. They often have to estimate the number and type of stars in a distant galaxy. The problem is, when you look into the distant reaches of the cosmos, the only stars you can see are the biggest and brightest. There's no alternative. To figure out the total population, you count the supermassive Shaqs and multiply by some correction factor to estimate the number of little guys.

The correction factor astronomers use comes from a function called the “IMF” — short for “initial mass function.” The initial mass function tells us the relative number of stars of different masses. For example, for every 20-solar-mass giant born in an interstellar cloud, there ought to be about 100 ordinary sun-like stars. This kind of ratio allows astronomers to conduct a census of all stars even when they can see only the behemoths.

Now for the real news flash: The initial mass function astronomers have been using for years might be wrong.

NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer, an ultraviolet space telescope dedicated to the study of galaxies, has found proof that small stars are more numerous than previously believed.

“Some of the standard assumptions that we've had — that the brightest stars tell you about the whole population — don't seem to work, at least not in a constant way,” says Gerhardt R. Meurer who led the study as a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md. (Meurer is now at the University of Western Australia.)

Meurer says that the discrepancy could be as high as a factor of four. In other words, the total mass of small stars in some galaxies could be four times greater than astronomers thought. Take that, Shaq!

The study relied on data from Galaxy Evolution Explorer to sense UV radiation from the smaller stars in distant galaxies, and data from telescopes at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory to sense the “H-alpha” (red light) signature of larger stars. Results apply mainly to galaxies where stars are newly forming, cautions Meurer.

“I think this is one of the more important results to come out of the Galaxy Evolution Explorer mission,” he says. Indeed, astronomers might never count stars the same way again.

Find out about some of the other important discoveries of the Galaxy Evolution Explorer at http://www.galex.caltech.edu/. For an easy-to-understand answer for kids to “How many solar systems are in our galaxy?” go to The Space Place at: http://tiny.cc/I2KMa

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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GOES-R, Zombie Fighter

NASA Space Placeby Dr. Tony Phillips

  
The Galaxy 15 communication satellite was “brainless” for several months in 2010 after being exposed to a geomagnetic storm. The new GOES-R satellite will warn of such dangers.
Click image for larger view
On April 5, 2010, something eerie happened to the Galaxy 15 telecommunications satellite: It turned into a zombie.

The day began as usual, with industry-owned Galaxy 15 relaying TV signals to millions of viewers in North America, when suddenly the geosynchronous satellite stopped taking commands from Earth. It was brain dead! Like any good zombie, however, its body continued to function. Within days, Galaxy 15 began to meander among other satellites in geosynchronous orbit, transmitting its own signal on top of the others’. Satellite operators scrambled to deal with the interference, all the while wondering what happened?

In horror movies, zombies are usually produced by viruses.

“In this case, the culprit was probably the sun,” says Bill Denig of the National Geophysical Data Center in Boulder, Colorado. He and colleague Janet Green of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center recently led a study of the Galaxy 15 anomaly, and here are their conclusions:

On April 3rd, a relatively minor solar flare launched a cloud of plasma toward Earth. Galaxy 15 had experienced many such events before, but this time there was a difference.

“Galaxy 15 was just emerging from the shadow of Earth when the cloud arrived and triggered a geomagnetic storm,” explains Denig. Suddenly exposed to sunlight and the ongoing storm, “the spacecraft began to heat up and charge [up].”

Electrons swirling around Galaxy 15 stuck to and penetrated the spacecraft’s surface. As more and more charged particles accumulated, voltages began to rise, and —zap!— an electrostatic discharge occurred. A zombie was born.

“At least, this is what we suspect happened based on data collected by GOES satellites in the vicinity,” he says. “We’ll be able to diagnose events like this much better, however, after GOES-R is launched by NASA in 2015.”

GOES-R is NOAA’s next-generation Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite. One of the instruments it will carry, a low-energy electron counter, is crucial to “zombie fighting.” Low energy-electrons are the ones most likely to stick to a spacecraft’s surface and cause brain-frying discharges. By monitoring these particles in Earth orbit, GOES-R will provide better post-mortems for future zombie outbreaks. This could help satellite designers figure out how to build spacecraft less susceptible to discharges. Also, GOES-R will be able to issue alerts when dangerous electrons appear. Satellite operators could then take protective action—for example, putting their birds in “safe mode”—to keep the zombie population at bay.

Meanwhile, Galaxy 15 is a zombie no more. In late December 2010, after 9 months of terrorizing nearby spacecraft, the comsat was re-booted, and began responding to commands from Earth again.

All’s well that ends well? True zombie fighters know better than to relax. Says Denig, “we’re looking forward to GOES-R.”

You and the kids in your life can learn about space weather at http://scijinks.gov/space-weather-and-us.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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Thank Goodness the Sun is Single

NASA Space PlaceBy Trudy E. Bell

  
Planetary collisions such as shown in this artist’s rendering could be quite common in binary star systems where the stars are very close.
Click image for larger view
It’s a good thing the Sun is single. According to new research, Sun-like stars in close double-star systems “can be okay for a few billion years — but then they go bad,” says Jeremy Drake of the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass.

How bad? According to data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, close binary stars can destroy their planets along with any life. Drake and four colleagues reported the results in the September 10, 2010, issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Our Sun, about 864,000 miles across, rotates on its axis once in 24.5 days. “Three billion years ago, roughly when bacteria evolved on Earth, the Sun rotated in only 5 days,” explains Drake. Its rotation rate has been gradually slowing because the solar wind gets tangled up in the solar magnetic field, and acts as a brake.

But some sun-like stars occur in close pairs only a few million miles apart. That’s only about five times the diameter of each star — so close the stars are gravitationally distorted. They are actually elongated toward each other. They also interact tidally, keeping just one face toward the other, as the Moon does toward Earth.

Such a close binary is “a built-in time bomb,” Drake declares. The continuous loss of mass from the two stars via solar wind carries away some of the double-star system’s angular momentum, causing the two stars to spiral inward toward each other, orbiting faster and faster as the distance shrinks. When each star’s rotation period on its axis is the same as its orbital period around the other, the pair effectively rotates as a single body in just 3 or 4 days.

Then, watch out! Such fast spinning intensifies the magnetic dynamo inside each star. The stars “generate bigger, stronger ‘star spots’ 5 to 10 percent the size of the star — so big they can be detected from Earth,” Drake says. “The stars also interact magnetically very violently, shooting out monster flares.”

Worst of all, the decreasing distance between the two stars “changes the gravitational resonances of the planetary system,” Drake continued, destabilizing the orbits of any planets circling the pair. Planets may so strongly perturbed they are sent into collision paths. As they repeatedly slam into each other, they shatter into red-hot asteroid-sized bodies, killing any life. In as short as a century, the repeated collisions pulverize the planets into a ring of warm dust.

The infrared glow from this pulverized debris is what Spitzer has seen in some self-destructing star systems. Drake and his colleagues now want to examine a much bigger sample of binaries to see just how bad double star systems really are.

They’re already sure of one thing: “We’re glad the Sun is single!”

Read more about these findings at the NASA Spitzer site at http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/news/1182-ssc2010-07-Pulverized-Planet-Dust-May-Lie-Around-Double-Stars . For kids, the Spitzer Concentration game shows a big collection of memorable (if you’re good at the game) images from the Spitzer Space Telescope. Visit http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/spitzer/concentration/.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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Planets in Strange Places

NASA Space PlaceBy Trudy E. Bell

  
Artist’s rendering compares size of a hypothetical hypergiant star and its surrounding dusty disk to that of our solar system.
Click image for larger view
Red star, blue star, big star, small star — planets may form around virtually any type or size of star throughout the universe, not just around mid-sized middle-aged yellow stars like the Sun. That’s the surprising implication of two discoveries in 2006 from the 0.85-meter-diameter Spitzer Space Telescope, which is exploring the universe from orbit at infrared (heat) wavelengths blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere.

At one extreme are two blazing, blue “hypergiant” stars 180,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of the two companion galaxies to our Milky Way. The stars, called R 66 and R 126, are respectively 30 and 70 times the mass of the Sun, “about as massive as stars can get,” said Joel Kastner, professor of imaging science at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. R 126 is so luminous that if it were placed 10 parsecs (32.6 light-years) away — a distance at which the Sun would be one of the dimmest stars visible in the sky — the hypergiant would be as bright as the full moon, “definitely a daytime object,” Kastner remarked.

Such hot stars have fierce solar winds, so Kastner and his team are mystified why any dust in the neighborhood hasn’t long since been blown away. But there it is: an unmistakable spectral signature that both hypergiants are surrounded by mammoth disks of what might be planet-forming dust and even sand.

At the other extreme is a tiny brown dwarf star called Cha 110913-773444, relatively nearby (500 light-years) in the Milky Way. One of the smallest brown dwarfs known, it has less than 1 percent the mass of the Sun. It’s not even massive enough to kindle thermonuclear reactions for fusing hydrogen into helium. Yet this miniature “failed star,” as brown dwarfs are often called, is also surrounded by a flat disk of dust that may eventually clump into planets. (This brown dwarf discovery was made by a group led by Kevin Luhman of Pennsylvania State University.)

Although actual planets have not been detected (in part because of the stars’ great distances), the spectra of the hypergiants show that their dust is composed of forsterite, olivine, aromatic hydrocarbons, and other geological substances found on Earth.

These newfound disks represent “extremes of the environments in which planets might form,” Kastner said. “Not what you’d expect if you think our solar system is the rule.” Hypergiants and dwarfs? The Milky Way could be crowded with worlds circling every kind of star imaginable — very strange, indeed.

Keep up with the latest findings from the Spitzer at www.spitzer.caltech.edu. Kids and their grownup friends can enjoy beautiful images from Spitzer while playing Spitzer Concentration at The Space Place (spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/spitzer/concentration).

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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Astronomers Stumble onto Huge Space Molecules

NASA Space PlaceBy Trudy E. Bell and Tony Phillips

  
Superimposed on a Spitzer infrared photo of the Small Magellanic Cloud is an artist's illustration depicting a magnified view of a planetary nebula and an even further magnified view of buckyballs, which consist of 60 carbon atoms arranged like soccer balls.
Click image for larger view
Deep in interstellar space, in a the swirling gaseous envelope of a planetary nebula, hosts of carbon atoms have joined together to form large three-dimensional molecules of a special type previously seen only on Earth. Astronomers discovered them almost accidentally using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

“They are the largest molecules known in space,” declared Jan Cami of the University of Western Ontario, lead author of a paper with three colleagues published in Science online on July 22, 2010, and in print on September 3.

Not only are the molecules big: they are of a special class of carbon molecules known as “fullerenes” because their structure resembles the geodesic domes popularized by architect Buckminster Fuller. Spitzer found evidence of two types of fullerenes. The smaller type, nicknamed the “buckyball,” is chemical formula C60, made of 60 carbon atoms joined in a series of hexagons and pentagons to form a spherical closed cage exactly like a black-and-white soccer ball. Spitzer also found a larger fullerene, chemical formula C70, consisting of 70 carbon atoms in an elongated closed cage more resembling an oval rugby ball.

Neither type of fullerene is rigid; instead, their carbon atoms vibrate in and out, rather like the surface of a large soap bubble changes shape as it floats through the air. “Those vibrations correspond to wavelengths of infrared light emitted or absorbed—and that infrared emission is what Spitzer recorded,” Cami explained.

Although fullerenes have been sought in space for the last 25 years, ever since they were first identified in the laboratory, the astronomers practically stumbled into the discovery. Co-author Jeronimo Bernard-Salas of Cornell University, an expert in gas and dust in planetary nebulae, was doing routine research with Spitzer's infrared observations of planetary nebulae with its spectroscopy instrument. When he studied the spectrum (infrared signature) of a dim planetary nebula called TC 1 in the southern — hemisphere constellation of Ara, he noticed several clear peaks he had not seen before in the spectra of other planetary nebulae.

“When he came to me,” recounted Cami, an astrophysicist who specializes in molecular chemistry, “I immediately and intuitively knew it I was looking at buckyballs in space. I've never been that excited!” The authors confirmed his hunch by carefully comparing the Tc 1 spectrum to laboratory experiments described in the literature.

“This discovery shows that it is possible — even easy — for complex carbonaceous molecules to form spontaneously in space,” Cami said. “Now that we know fullerenes are out there, we can figure out their roles in the physics and chemistry of deep space. Who knows what other complex chemical compounds exist—maybe even some relevant to the formation of life in the universe!”

Stay tuned!

Learn more about this discovery at http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu. For kids, there are lots of beautiful Spitzer images to match up in the Spitzer Concentration game at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/spitzer/concentration.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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