[Spitzer News] Space Buckyballs Thrive, Finds NASA Spitzer Telescope

Spitzer Space Telescope News and Updates spitzer-news at lists.ipac.caltech.edu
Thu Oct 28 14:36:16 PDT 2010

Press Releases

1) Space Buckyballs Thrive, Finds NASA Spitzer Telescope (Oct 27th 2010)
2) Astronomers Find Weird, Warm Spot on an Exoplanet (Oct 19th 2010)
3) Pulverized Planet Dust May Lie Around Double Stars (Aug 23rd 2010)
4) NASA Telescope Finds Elusive Buckyballs in Space for First Time  
(Jul 22nd 2010)
5) 'This Planet Tastes Funny,' According to Spitzer Telescope (Apr  
21st 2010)
6) Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust: Chandra/Spitzer Image (Mar 29th 2010)
7) NASA's Spitzer Unearths Primitive Black Holes (Mar 17th 2010)
8) Spitzer Detects the 'Heartbeat' of Star Formation in the Milky Way  
Galaxy (Mar 10th 2010)
9) Galaxy Exposes its Dusty Inner Workings in New Spitzer Image (Jan  
5th 2010)
10) Centuries-Old Star Mystery Coming to a Close (Jan 5th 2010)
11) Spitzer to Unveil Biggest Milky Way View at Adler Planetarium (Nov  
30th 2009)
12) Spitzer Telescope Observes Baby Brown Dwarf (Nov 23rd 2009)
13) NASA's Great Observatories Celebrate International Year of  
Astronomy (Nov 10th 2009)
14) NASA Space Telescope Discovers Largest Ring Around Saturn (Oct 6th  


1) Spitzer Goes Buck Wild and Finds Buckyballs Floating Between the  
Stars (Oct 27th 2010)
2) Giant Star Goes Supernova -- and is Smothered by its Own Dust (Oct  
12th 2010)
3) Shining Starlight on the Dark Cocoons of Star Birth (Sep 23rd 2010)
4) Spitzer Finds a Flavorful Mix of Asteroids (Sep 2nd 2010)
5) Galaxies' Glory Days Revealed (Aug 18th 2010)
6) NASA's Great Observatories Witness a Galactic Spectacle (Aug 5th  
7) Into the Wild: Spitzer Space Telescope Surveys the Milky Way's  
Outback (Jul 28th 2010)
8) Unravelling the Mystery of Star Birth - Dust Disk Discovered Around  
Massive Star (Jul 14th 2010)
9) Catch a Planet By the Tail (Jul 9th 2010)
10) Spitzer Spies a 'Flying Dragon' Smoldering with Secret Star Birth  
(Jul 7th 2010)
11) The Coolest Stars Come Out of the Dark (Jun 24th 2010)
12) Two Peas in an Irregular Pod: How Binary Stars May Form (May 20th  
13) Ancient City of Galaxies Looks Surprisingly Modern (May 12th 2010)
14) Colony of Young Stars Shines in New Spitzer Image (Apr 1st 2010)
15) Spitzer Space Telescope Team Receives Award (Mar 23rd 2010)
16) Jurassic Space: Telescopes Probe Ancient Galaxies Near Us (Feb  
18th 2010)
17) Spitzer Goes to the Olympics (Feb 9th 2010)
18) A Quarter Century of Infrared Astronomy (Dec 24th 2009)
19) Unsettled Youth: Spitzer Observes a Chaotic Planetary System (Nov  
4th 2009)
20) Universal Origins (Oct 23rd 2009)
21) Astronomers Do It Again: Find Organic Molecules Around Gas Planet  
(Oct 20th 2009)

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= Press Releases =
1) Space Buckyballs Thrive, Finds NASA Spitzer Telescope (Oct 27th 2010)
PASADENA, Calif. -- Astronomers have discovered bucket loads of  
buckyballs in space. They used NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope to find  
the little carbon spheres throughout our Milky Way galaxy -- in the  
space between stars and around three dying stars. What's more, Spitzer  
detected buckyballs around a fourth dying star in a nearby galaxy in  
staggering quantities -- the equivalent in mass to about 15 of our  

Buckyballs, also known as fullerenes, are soccer-ball-shaped molecules  
consisting of 60 linked carbon atoms. They are named for their  
resemblance to the architect Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes, an  
example of which is found at the entrance to Disney's Epcot theme park  
in Orlando, Fla. The miniature spheres were first discovered in a lab  
on Earth 25 years ago, but it wasn't until this past July that Spitzer  
was able to provide the first confirmed proof of their existence in  
space (see http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2010-243). At  
that time, scientists weren't sure if they had been lucky to find a   
rare supply, or if perhaps the cosmic balls were all around.

"It turns out that buckyballs are much more common and abundant in the  
universe than initially thought," said astronomer Letizia Stanghellini  
of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Ariz.  
"Spitzer had recently found them in one specific location, but now we  
see them in other environments. This has implications for the  
chemistry of life. It's possible that buckyballs from outer space  
provided seeds for life on Earth."

Stanghellini is co-author of a new study appearing online Oct. 28 in  
the Astrophysical Journal Letters. Anibal García-Hernández of the  
Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, Spain, is the lead author of the  
paper. Another Spitzer study about the discovery  of buckyballs in  
space was also recently published in the Astrophysical Journal  
Letters. It was led by Kris Sellgren of Ohio State University, Columbus.

The García-Hernández team found the buckyballs around three dying sun- 
like stars, called planetary nebulae, in our own Milky Way galaxy.  
These cloudy objects, made up of material shed from the dying stars,  
are similar to the one where Spitzer found the first evidence for  
their existence.

The new research shows that all the planetary nebulae in which  
buckyballs have been detected are rich in hydrogen. This goes against  
what researchers thought for decades -- they had assumed that, as is  
the case with making buckyballs in the lab, hydrogen could not be  
present. The hydrogen, they theorized, would contaminate the carbon,  
causing it to form chains and other structures rather than the  
spheres, which contain no hydrogen at all. "We now know that  
fullerenes and hydrogen coexist in planetary nebulae, which is really  
important for telling us how they form in space," said García-Hernández.

García-Hernández and his colleagues also located buckyballs in a  
planetary nebula within a nearby galaxy called the Small Magellanic  
Cloud. This was particularly exciting to the researchers, because, in  
contrast to the planetary nebulae in the Milky  Way, the distance to  
this galaxy is known. Knowing the distance to the source of the  
buckyballs meant that the astronomers could calculate their quantity  
-- two percent of Earth's mass, or the mass of 15 of our moons.

The other new study, from Sellgren and her team, demonstrates that  
buckyballs are also present in the space between stars, but not too  
far away from young solar systems. The cosmic balls may have been  
formed in a planetary nebula, or perhaps between stars. A feature  
story about this research is online at http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/news/1212-feature10-18 

"It's exciting to find buckyballs in between stars that are still  
forming their solar systems, just a comet's throw away," Sellgren  
said. "This could be the link between fullerenes in space and  
fullerenes in meteorites."

The implications are far-reaching. Scientists have speculated in the  
past that buckyballs, which can act like cages for other molecules and  
atoms, might have carried substances to Earth that kick-started life.  
Evidence for this theory comes from the fact that buckyballs have been  
found in meteorites carrying extraterrestial gases.

"Buckyballs are sort of like diamonds with holes in the middle," said  
Stanghellini. "They are incredibly stable molecules that are hard to  
destroy, and they could carry other interesting molecules inside them.  
We hope to learn more about the important role they likely play in the  
death and birth of stars and planets, and maybe even life itself."

The little carbon balls are important in technology research too. They  
have potential applications in superconducting materials, optical  
devices, medicines, water purification, armor and more.

Other authors of the García-Hernández study are Arturo Manchado, the  
Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias; Pedro García-Lario, European  
Space Agency Centre, Spain; Eva Villaver, Universidad Autónoma de  
Madrid, Spain; Richard Shaw, National Optical Astronomy Observatory;  
Ryszard Szczerba, Nicolaus Copernicus Astronomical Center, Poland; and  
José V. Perea-Calderon, European Space Astronomy Centre, Ingeniería y  
Servicios Aerospaciales, Spain.

Other authors of the Sellgren study are Michael Werner, Spitzer  
project scientist, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.;  
James Ingalls, NASA's Spitzer Science Center at the California  
Institute of Technology in Pasadena.; J.D.T. Smith, University of  
Toledo, Ohio; T.M. Carleton, University of Arizona, Tucson; and  
Christine Joblin, Université de Toulouse, France.

2) Astronomers Find Weird, Warm Spot on an Exoplanet (Oct 19th 2010)
The gas-giant planet, named upsilon Andromedae b, orbits tightly  
around its star, with one face perpetually boiling under the star's  
heat. It belongs to a class of planets termed hot Jupiters, so called  
for their scorching temperatures and large, gaseous constitutions.

One might think the hottest part of these planets would be directly  
under the sun-facing side, but previous observations have shown that  
their hot spots may be shifted slightly away from this point.  
Astronomers thought that fierce winds might be pushing hot, gaseous  
material around.

But the new finding may throw this theory into question. Using  
Spitzer, an infrared observatory, astronomers found that upsilon  
Andromedae b's hot spot is offset by a whopping 80 degrees. Basically,  
the hot spot is over to the side of the planet instead of directly  
under the glare of the sun.

"We really didn't expect to find a hot spot with such a large offset,"  
said Ian Crossfield, lead author of a new paper about the discovery  
appearing in an upcoming issue of Astrophysical Journal. "It's clear  
that we understand even less about the atmospheric energetics of hot  
Jupiters than we thought we did."

The results are part of a growing field of exoplanet atmospheric  
science, pioneered by Spitzer in 2005, when it became the first  
telescope to directly detect photons from an exoplanet, or a planet  
orbiting a star other than our sun. Since then, Spitzer, along with  
NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, has studied the atmospheres of several  
hot Jupiters, finding water, methane, carbon dioxide and carbon  

In the new study, astronomers report observations of upsilon  
Andromedae b taken across five days in February of 2009. This planet  
whips around its star every 4.6 days, as measured using the "wobble,"  
or radial velocity technique, with telescopes on the ground. It does  
not transit, or cross in front of, its star as many other hot Jupiters  
studied by Spitzer do.

Spitzer measured the total combined light from the star and planet, as  
the planet orbited around. The telescope can't see the planet  
directly, but it can detect variations in the total infrared light  
from the system that arise as the hot side of the planet comes into  
Earth's field of view. The hottest part of the planet will give off  
the most infrared light.

One might think the system would appear brightest when the planet was  
directly behind the star, thus showing its full sun-facing side.  
Likewise, one might think the system would appear darkest when the  
planet swings around toward Earth, showing its backside. But the  
system was the brightest when the planet was to the side of the star,  
with its side facing Earth. This means that the hottest part of the  
planet is not under its star. It's sort of like going to the beach at  
sunset to feel the most heat. The researchers aren't sure how this  
could be.

They've guessed at some possibilities, including supersonic winds  
triggering shock waves that heat material up, and star-planet magnetic  
interactions. But these are just speculation. As more hot Jupiters are  
examined, astronomers will test new theories.

"This is a very unexpected result," said Michael Werner, the Spitzer  
project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena,  
Calif., who was not a part of the study. "Spitzer is showing us that  
we are a long way from understanding these alien worlds."

The Spitzer observations were made before it ran out of its liquid  
coolant in May 2009, officially beginning its warm mission.

Other authors of the study are Brad Hansen of UCLA; Joseph Harrington  
at the University of Central Florida, Orlando; James Y-K. Cho of Queen  
Mary, University of London, United Kingdom; Drake Deming of NASA's  
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; Kristen Menou of Columbia  
University, New York, N.Y.; and Sara Seager of the Massachusetts  
Institute of Technology, Boston.

3) Pulverized Planet Dust May Lie Around Double Stars (Aug 23rd 2010)
PASADENA, Calif. -- Tight double-star systems might not be the best  
places for life to spring up, according to a new study using data from  
NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The infrared observatory spotted a  
surprisingly large amount of dust around three mature, close-orbiting  
star pairs. Where did the dust come from? Astronomers say it might be  
the aftermath of tremendous planetary collisions.

"This is real-life science fiction," said Jeremy Drake of the Harvard- 
Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass. "Our data tell  
us that planets in these systems might not be so lucky -- collisions  
could be common. It's theoretically possible that habitable planets  
could exist around these types of stars, so if there happened to be  
any life there, it could be doomed."

Drake is the principal investigator of the research, published in the  
Aug.19 issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The particular class of binary, or double, stars in the study are  
about as snug as stars get. Named RS Canum Venaticorums, or RS CVns  
for short, they are separated by only about two million miles (3.2  
million kilometers), or two percent of the distance between Earth and  
our sun. The stellar pairs orbit around each other every few days,  
with one face on each star perpetually locked and pointed toward the  

The close-knit stars are similar to the sun in size and are probably  
about a billion to a few billion years old -- roughly the age of our  
sun when life first evolved on Earth. But these stars spin much  
faster, and, as a result, have powerful magnetic fields, and giant,  
dark spots. The magnetic activity drives strong stellar winds -- gale- 
force versions of the solar wind -- that slow the stars down, pulling  
the twirling duos closer over time. And this is where the planetary  
chaos may begin.

As the stars cozy up to each other, their gravitational influences  
change, and this could cause disturbances to planetary bodies orbiting  
around both stars. Comets and any planets that may exist in the  
systems would start jostling about and banging into each other,  
sometimes in powerful collisions. This includes planets that could  
theoretically be circling in the double stars' habitable zone, a  
region where temperatures would allow liquid water to exist. Though no  
habitable planets have been discovered around any stars beyond our sun  
at this point in time, tight double-star systems are known to host  
planets; for example, one system not in the study, called HW Vir, has  
two gas-giant planets.

"These kinds of systems paint a picture of the late stages in the  
lives of planetary systems," said Marc Kuchner, a co-author from NASA  
Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "And it's a future  
that's messy and violent."

Spitzer spotted the infrared glow of hot dusty disks, about the  
temperature of molten lava, around three such tight binary systems.  
One of the systems was originally flagged as having a suspicious  
excess of infrared light in 1983 by the Infrared Astronomical  
Satellite. In addition, researchers using Spitzer recently found a  
warm disk of debris around another star that turned out to be a tight  
binary system.

The astronomy team says that dust normally would have dissipated and  
blown away from the stars by this mature stage in their lives. They  
conclude that something -- most likely planetary collisions -- must  
therefore be kicking up the fresh dust. In addition, because dusty  
disks have now been found around four, older binary systems, the  
scientists know that the observations are not a fluke. Something  
chaotic is very likely going on.

If any life forms did exist in these star systems, and they could look  
up at the sky, they would have quite a view. Marco Matranga, first  
author of the paper, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for  
Astrophysics and now a visiting astronomer at the Palermo Astronomical  
Observatory in Sicily, said, "The skies there would have two huge  
suns, like the ones above the planet Tatooine in 'Star Wars.'"

Other authors include V.L. Kashyap of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center  
for Astrophysics; and Massimo Marengo of Iowa State University, Ames.

The Spitzer observations were made before it ran out of its liquid  
coolant in May 2009, officially beginning its warm mission.

4) NASA Telescope Finds Elusive Buckyballs in Space for First Time  
(Jul 22nd 2010)
PASADENA, Calif. - 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 observed 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, Calif. "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 has authored a paper about the discovery that will appear  
online 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.

The Cami team unexpectedly found the carbon balls in a planetary  
nebula named Tc 1. Planetary nebulas are the remains of stars, like  
the sun, that shed their outer layers of gas and dust as they age. A  
compact, hot star, or white dwarf, at the center 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 Spitzer's spectroscopy instrument to  
analyze infrared light from the planetary nebula and see the spectral  
signatures of the buckyballs. 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."

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 armor, 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.

5) 'This Planet Tastes Funny,' According to Spitzer Telescope (Apr  
21st 2010)
PASADENA, Calif. - NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has discovered  
something odd about a distant planet -- it lacks methane, an  
ingredient common to many of the planets in our solar system.

"It's a big puzzle," said Kevin Stevenson, a planetary sciences  
graduate student at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, lead  
author of a study appearing tomorrow, April 22 in the journal Nature.  
"Models tell us that the carbon in this planet should be in the form  
of methane. Theorists are going to be quite busy trying to figure this  
one out."

The discovery brings astronomers one step closer to probing the  
atmospheres of distant planets the size of Earth. The methane-free  
planet, called GJ 436b, is about the size of Neptune, making it the  
smallest distant planet that any telescope has successfully "tasted,"  
or analyzed. Eventually, a larger space telescope could use the same  
kind of technique to search smaller, Earth-like worlds for methane and  
other chemical signs of life, such as water, oxygen and carbon dioxide.

"Ultimately, we want to find biosignatures on a small, rocky world.  
Oxygen, especially with even a little methane, would tell us that we  
humans might not be alone," said Stevenson.

"In this case, we expected to find methane not because of the presence  
of life, but because of the planet's chemistry. This type of planet  
should have cooked up methane. It's like dipping bread into beaten  
eggs, frying it, and getting oatmeal in the end," said Joseph  
Harrington of the University of Central Florida, the principal  
investigator of the research.

Methane is present on our life-bearing planet, manufactured primarily  
by microbes living in cows and soaking in waterlogged rice fields. All  
of the giant planets in our solar system have methane too, despite  
their lack of cows. Neptune is blue because of this chemical, which  
absorbs red light. Methane is a common ingredient of relatively cool  
bodies, including "failed" stars, which are called brown dwarfs.

In fact, any world with the common atmospheric mix of hydrogen, carbon  
and oxygen, and a temperature up to 1,000 Kelvin (1,340 degrees  
Fahrenheit) is expected to have a large amount of methane and a small  
amount of carbon monoxide. The carbon should "prefer" to be in the  
form of methane at these temperatures.

At 800 Kelvin (or 980 degrees Fahrenheit), GJ 436b is supposed to have  
abundant methane and little carbon monoxide. Spitzer observations have  
shown the opposite. The space telescope has captured the planet's  
light in six infrared wavelengths, showing evidence for carbon  
monoxide but not methane.

"We're scratching our heads," said Harrington. "But what this does  
tell us is that there is room for improvement in our models. Now we  
have actual data on faraway planets that will teach us what's really  
going on in their atmospheres."

GJ 436b is located 33 light-years away in the constellation Leo, the  
Lion. It rides in a tight, 2.64-day orbit around its small star, an "M- 
dwarf" much cooler than our sun. The planet transits, or crosses in  
front of, its star as viewed from Earth.

Spitzer was able to detect the faint glow of GJ 436b by watching it  
slip behind its star, an event called a secondary eclipse. As the  
planet disappears, the total light observed from the star system drops  
-- this drop is then measured to find the brightness of the planet at  
various wavelengths. The technique, first pioneered by Spitzer in  
2005, has since been used to measure atmospheric components of several  
Jupiter-sized exoplanets, the so-called "hot Jupiters," and now the  
Neptune-sized GJ 436b.

"The Spitzer technique is being pushed to smaller, cooler planets more  
like our Earth than the previously studied hot Jupiters," said Charles  
Beichman, director of NASA's Exoplanet Science Institute at NASA's Jet  
Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology, both  
in Pasadena, Calif. "In coming years, we can expect that a space  
telescope could characterize the atmosphere of a rocky planet a few  
times the size of the Earth. Such a planet might show signposts of  

This research was performed before Spitzer ran out of its liquid  
coolant in May 2009, officially beginning its "warm" mission.

6) Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust: Chandra/Spitzer Image (Mar 29th 2010)

7) NASA's Spitzer Unearths Primitive Black Holes (Mar 17th 2010)

8) Galaxy Exposes its Dusty Inner Workings in New Spitzer Image (Jan  
5th 2010)

9) Centuries-Old Star Mystery Coming to a Close (Jan 5th 2010)

10) Spitzer to Unveil Biggest Milky Way View at Adler Planetarium (Nov  
30th 2009)

11) Spitzer Telescope Observes Baby Brown Dwarf (Nov 23rd 2009)

12) NASA's Great Observatories Celebrate International Year of  
Astronomy (Nov 10th 2009)

13) NASA Space Telescope Discovers Largest Ring Around Saturn (Oct 6th  

==== Features ====
1) Spitzer Goes Buck Wild and Finds Buckyballs Floating Between the  
Stars (Oct 27th 2010)
Fresh after finding buckyballs around an aging star, NASA's Spitzer  
Space Telescope has now detected these intriguing, miniature-soccer- 
ball-shaped molecules in interstellar space for the first time.

With these new results, the buckyball claims the record for the  
largest molecule ever discovered floating between the stars. The  
unique properties of buckyballs that have made these rounded particles  
such a hot area of research here on Earth also offer up some exciting  
possibilities for cosmic chemistry.

"Buckyballs are carbon molecules in the shape of a cage and they are  
very tough and hard to destroy," said Kris Sellgren, a professor of  
astronomy at The Ohio State University in Columbus, OH.  She noted  
that although life forms, let alone a single molecule of DNA,  
absolutely dwarf a buckyball, "single atoms or small molecules can  
become trapped and can survive inside the cage while the buckyball  
safely travels through the harsh conditions of space."

In this way, buckyballs can provide chemical "messages in a bottle,"  
preserving records of gas present in stellar or interstellar  
environments. Buckyballs with extraterrestrial gases trapped inside  
them, for example, have previously been found in meteorites that have  
slammed into Earth. Spotting buckyballs in interstellar space also  
reveals that relatively big molecules can persist and maybe even form  
in the diffuse, unforgiving voids between the stars.

Catching a buckyball
The particular variety of buckyball newly spied by Spitzer is made of  
60 carbon atoms arranged in hexagons and pentagons like the panels of  
a soccer ball. Scientists created these spherical molecules in the lab  
25 years ago and - noting their resemblance to geodesic domes - named  
them buckminsterfullerenes after the domes' inventor, Buckminster  
Fuller. The patterned orb of a geodesic dome will appear familiar to  
visitors to Disney World's Epcot Center in Florida, for instance, and  
halves of these domes are popular as jungle gyms on playgrounds.

Astronomers had long expected to find buckyballs in outer space,  
especially after the tiny structures turned up in meteorites and in  
more everyday materials such as soot. Sellgren and her team, while on  
the hunt for buckyballs in infrared data collected by Spitzer, looked  
at two nebulae. The first, NGC 2023, is located near the well-known  
Horsehead Nebula in the constellation of  Orion, and the second, NGC  
7023, known as the Iris Nebula, appears in the constellation Cepheus.

Hints of interstellar buckyballs had first come in 1994, when Foing  
and Ehrenfreund detected absorption lines they attributed to  
buckyballs missing an electron. Then, in 2004, Sellgren and her  
colleagues serendipitously detected two light signatures indicative of  
the faceted mini-globes. The researchers knew they had caught a  
buckyball for sure this time around when they saw a predicted third  
signature in infrared light from the nebulae.

A buckyball, built from scratch
Although these hefty spaceborne molecules have now been identified in  
two different places in space, their ultimate origin remains sketchy.

One scenario starts with the abundance of carbon atoms that typical  
stars like our Sun produce late in their lifetimes. As aging stars'  
atmospheres swell, carbon sloughs off into the surrounding region  
known as circumstellar space. Researchers believe the high  
concentration of carbon-rich gas there allows complex molecules such  
as buckyballs to form. Such circumstellar buckyballs have been  
detected with Spitzer. The molecules cooked up around the dying star  
then waft away after its death, mingling with other gases and  
molecules between the stars.

Just how long buckyballs and other carbonaceous molecules can survive  
in rough interstellar conditions is a bit of a mystery. Shock waves  
from energetic particles streaming off stars, called stellar winds,  
supernovae blasts, and far-flung ejections of mass by newborn stars  
might break big molecules apart. Buckyballs are hardy, but if  
shattered, they would need to be somehow remade or reintroduced to  
interstellar space in order to explain their existence in such rugged  

Another proposed route for constructing buckyballs in space is to  
bombard carbon-rich dust grains with ultraviolet light from a star.  
Earthbound experiments have demonstrated that this can cause grains to  
shed carbon-containing molecules, including pure-carbon buckyballs.  
The nebulae Sellgren and colleagues studied - plentiful in ultraviolet  
starlight and carbon-rich dust - fit the bill in this manner as  
potential buckyball factories.

Not all of these generated buckyballs have to end up battered and  
drifting through the cosmos, however. Some could join the dust, gas  
and other materials in the so-called circumstellar disks that fan out  
from young stars and eventually give rise to solar systems.

"If you have all these buckyballs floating around, it's possible they  
are getting incorporated into the circumstellar disk, and from there  
into planetary formation," Sellgren said.  She and her team found  
buckyballs within a mere comet's throw from newly forming solar  
systems in the two nebulae.

Carbon is the key building block for life as we know it; the  
possibility exists that some of the very carbon in ours or even  
extraterrestrials' bodies might well have been balled up once as a  
buckyball crafted in space.

"Now that there are buckyballs confirmed in the interstellar medium  
and in circumstellar space, it's likely that chemists will get more  
interested in the astrobiological implications of these fascinating  
molecules," Sellgren said.

Sellgren and her colleagues detail the new results in a paper  
published in the October 10 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

2) Giant Star Goes Supernova -- and is Smothered by its Own Dust (Oct  
12th 2010)
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A giant star in a faraway galaxy recently ended its  
life with a dust-shrouded whimper instead of the more typical bang.

Ohio State University researchers suspect that this odd event -- the  
first one of its kind ever viewed by astronomers – was more common  
early in the universe.

It also hints at what we would see if the brightest star system in our  
galaxy became a supernova.

In a paper published online in the Astrophysical Journal, Christopher  
Kochanek, a professor of astronomy at Ohio State, and his  colleagues  
describe how the supernova appeared in late August 2007, as part of  
the Spitzer Space Telescope Deep Wide Field Survey.

The astronomers were searching the survey data for active galactic  
nuclei (AGN), super-massive black holes at the centers of galaxies.  
AGN radiate enormous amounts of heat as material is sucked into the  
black hole. In particular, the astronomers were searching for hot  
spots that varied in temperature, since these could provide evidence  
of changes in how the material was falling into the black hole.

Normally, astronomers wouldn’t expect to find a supernova this way,  
explained then-Ohio State postdoctoral researcher Szymon Kozlowski.  
Supernovae release most of their energy as light, not heat.

But one very hot spot, which appeared in a galaxy some 3 billion   
light years from Earth, didn’t match the typical heat signal of an  
AGN. The visible spectrum of light emanating from the galaxy didn’t  
show the presence of an AGN, either – the researchers confirmed that  
fact using the 10-meter Keck Telescope in Hawaii.

Enormous heat flared from the object for a little over six months,  
then faded away in early March 2008 – another clue that the  object  
was a supernova.

“Over six months, it released more energy that our sun could produce  
in its entire lifetime,” Kozlowski said.

The astronomers knew that if the source were a supernova, the extreme  
amount of energy it emitted would qualify it as a big one, or a  
“hypernova.” The temperature of the object was around 1,000 Kelvin  
(about 700 degrees Celsius) -- only a little hotter than the surface  
of the planet Venus. They wondered -- what could absorb that much  
light energy and dissipate it as heat?

The answer: dust, and a lot of it.

Using what they learned from the Spitzer survey, the astronomers  
worked backward to determine what kind of star could have spawned the  
supernova, and how the dust was able to partly muffle the explosion.  
They calculated that the star was probably a giant, at least 50 times  
more massive than our sun. Such massive stars typically belch clouds  
of dust as they near the end of their existence.

This particular star must have had at least two such ejections, they  
determined – one about 300 years before the supernova, and one only  
about four years before it. The dust and gas from both ejections  
remained around the star, each in a slowly expanding shell. The inner  
shell – the one from four years ago – would be very close to the star,  
while the outer shell from 300 years ago would be much farther away.

“We think the outer shell must be nearly opaque, so it absorbed any  
light energy that made it through the inner shell and converted it to  
heat,” said Kochanek, who is also the Ohio Eminent Scholar in  
Observational Cosmology.

That’s why the supernova showed up on the Spitzer survey as a hot dust  

Krzysztof Stanek, professor of astronomy at Ohio State, said that  
stars probably choked on their own dust much more often in the distant  

“These events are much more likely to happen in a small, low  
metallicity galaxy,” he said -- meaning a young galaxy that hadn’t  
been around long enough for its stars to fuse hydrogen and helium into  
the more complex chemicals that astronomers refer to as “metals.”

Still, Kozlowski added that more such supernovae will likely be found  
by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Explorer (WISE), which was launched in  
December 2009. “I would expect WISE to see 100 of these events in two  
years, now that we know what to look for,” he  said.

Because of the alignment of the galaxy with Earth and our sun,  
astronomers were not able to see what the event looked like to the  
naked eye while it was happening. But Kochanek believes that we might  
see the star brighten a decade or so from now. That’s how long it will  
take for the shockwave from the exploding star to reach the inner dust  
shell and slam it into the outer shell. Then we’ll have something to  
see here on Earth.

We do have at least one chance to see a similar light show closer to  
home, though.

“If Eta Carinae went supernova right now, this is what it would  
probably look like,” Kochanek said, referring to the brightest star  
system in our Milky Way Galaxy.

The two stars that make up Eta Carinae are 7,500 light years away, and  
they host a distinctive dust shell dubbed the Homunculus Nebula, among  
other layers of dust. Astronomers believe that the nebula was created  
when the larger of the two stars underwent a massive eruption around  
1840, and that future eruptions are likely.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the  
Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission  
Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the  
Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology, also  
in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

This work was sponsored by NASA and the National Science Foundation.  
Kozlowski has since taken a new postdoctoral position at Warsaw  
University Observatory in Poland.

The original article can be found here: http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/dustynova.htm

3) Shining Starlight on the Dark Cocoons of Star Birth (Sep 23rd 2010)
Astronomers have employed a cosmic phenomenon, termed "coreshine," to  
reveal new information about how stars and planets come to be.

The scientists used data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope to  
measure infrared light deflecting off cores -- cold, dark cocoons  
where young stars and planetary systems are blossoming. This coreshine  
effect, which occurs when starlight from nearby stars bounces off the  
cores, reveals information about their age and consistency. In a new  
paper, to be published Friday, Sept. 24, in the journal Science, the  
team reports finding coreshine across dozens of dark cores.

"Dark clouds in our Milky Way galaxy, far from Earth, are huge places  
where new stars are born. But they are shy and hide themselves in a  
shroud of dust so that we cannot see what happens inside," said  
Laurent Pagani of the Observatoire de Paris and the Centre National de  
la Recherche Scientifique, both in France. "We have found a new way to  
peer into them. They are like ghosts because we see them but we also  
see through them."

Pagani and his team first observed one case of the coreshine  
phenomenon in 2009. They were surprised to see that starlight was  
scattering off a dark core in the form of infrared light that Spitzer  
could see. They had thought the grains of dust making up the core were  
too small to deflect the starlight; instead, they expected the  
sunlight would travel straight through.

Previous observations of reflected starlight at shorter wavelengths of  
light - dubbed "cloudshine" since they were sensitive to smaller dust  
grains residing towards the surface of the clouds - were consistent  
with this view. However, the new findings show  that the dust grains  
were bigger than previously thought - about 1 micron instead of 0.1  
micron (a typical human hair is about 100 microns).

That might not sound like a big difference, but it can significantly  
change astronomers' models of star and planet formation. For one  
thing, the larger grain size means that planets -- which form as dust  
circling young stars sticks together -- might take shape more quickly.  
In other words, the tiny seeds for planet formation may be forming  
very early on, when a star is still in its pre-embryonic phase.

But this particular object observed in 2009 could have been a fluke.  
The researchers did not know if what they found was true of other dark  
clouds -- until now. In the new study, they examine 110 dark cores,  
and find that about half of them exhibit coreshine.

The finding amounts to a tool for not only studying the dust making up  
the dark cores, but also for assessing their age. The more developed  
star-forming cores will have larger dust grains, so, using this tool,  
astronomers can better map their ages across our Milky Way galaxy.  
Coreshine can also help in constructing three-dimensional models of  
the cores -- the deflected starlight is scattered in a way that is  
dependent on the cloud structures.

Said Pagani, "We're opening a new window on the realm of dark, star- 
forming cores."

Other authors are Aurore Bacmann of the Astrophysics Laboratory of  
Grenoble, France, and Jürgen Steinacker, Amelia Stutz and Thomas  
Henning of the Max-Planck Institute for Astronomy, Germany. Steinacker  
is also with the Observatoire de Paris, and Stutz is also with the  
University of Arizona, Tucson.

The Spitzer measurements are based on data from the mission's public  
archive, taken before the telescope ran out of its liquid coolant in  
May 2009 and began its current warm mission.

4) Spitzer Finds a Flavorful Mix of Asteroids (Sep 2nd 2010)
New research from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope reveals that  
asteroids somewhat near Earth, termed near-Earth objects, are a mixed  
bunch, with a surprisingly wide array of compositions. Like a piñata  
filled with everything from chocolates to fruity candies, these  
asteroids come in assorted colors and compositions. Some are dark and  
dull; others are shiny and bright. The Spitzer observations of 100  
known near-Earth asteroids demonstrate that the objects' diversity is  
greater than previously thought.

The findings are helping astronomers better understand near-Earth  
objects as a whole -- a population whose physical properties are not  
well known.

"These rocks are teaching us about the places they come from," said  
David Trilling of Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, lead author  
of a new paper on the research appearing in the September issue of  
Astronomical Journal. "It's like studying pebbles in a streambed to  
learn about the mountains they tumbled down."

After nearly six years of operation, in May 2009, Spitzer used up the  
liquid coolant needed to chill its infrared detectors. It is now  
operating in a so-called "warm" mode (the actual temperature is still  
quite cold at 30 Kelvin, or minus 406 degrees Fahrenheit). Two of  
Spitzer's infrared channels, the shortest-wavelength detectors on the  
observatory, are working perfectly.

One of the mission's new "warm" programs is to survey about 700 near- 
Earth objects, cataloguing their individual traits. By observing in  
infrared, Spitzer is helping to gather more accurate estimates of  
asteroids' compositions and sizes than what is possible with visible  
light alone. Visible-light observations of an asteroid won't  
differentiate between an asteroid that is big and dark, or small and  
light. Both rocks would reflect the same amount of visible sunlight.  
Infrared data provide a read on the object's temperature, which then  
tells an astronomer more about the actual size and composition. A big,  
dark rock has a higher temperature than a small, light one because it  
absorbs more sunlight.

Trilling and his team have analyzed preliminary data on 100 near-Earth  
asteroids so far. They plan to observe 600 more over the next year.  
There are roughly 7,000 known near-Earth objects out of a population  
expected to number in the tens to hundreds of thousands.

"Very little is known about the physical characteristics of the near- 
Earth population," said Trilling. "Our data will tell us more about  
the population, and how it changes from one object to the next. This  
information could be used to help plan possible future space missions  
to study a near-Earth object."

The data show that some of the smaller objects have surprisingly high  
albedos (an albedo is a measurement of how much sunlight an object  
reflects). Since asteroid surfaces become darker with time due to  
exposure to solar radiation, the presence of lighter, brighter  
surfaces for some asteroids may indicate that they are relatively  
young. This is evidence for the continuing evolution of the near-Earth  
object population.

In addition, the fact that the asteroids observed so far have a  
greater degree of diversity than expected indicates that they might  
have different origins. Some might come from the main belt between  
Mars and Jupiter, and others could come from farther out in the solar  
system. This diversity also suggests that the materials that went into  
making the asteroids -- the same materials that make up our planets --  
were probably mixed together like a big solar-system soup very early  
in its history.

The research complements that of NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey  
Explorer, or WISE, an all-sky infrared survey mission also up in space  
now. WISE has already observed more than 430 near-Earth objects -- of  
these, more than 110 are newly discovered.

In the future, both Spitzer and WISE will tell us even more about the  
"flavors" of near-Earth objects. This could reveal new clues about how  
the cosmic objects might have dotted our young planet with water and  
organics -- ingredients needed to kick-start life.

Other authors of the paper include Cristina Thomas, also from Northern  
Arizona University; Michael Mueller and Marco Delbo of the  
Observatoire de la Côte d'Azur, Nice, France; Joseph Hora, Giovanni  
Fazio, Howard Smith and Tim Spahr of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center  
for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass.; Alan Harris of the DLR Institute  
of Planetary Research, Berlin, Germany (DLR is Germany's space agency  
and stands for Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt); Bidushi  
Bhattacharya of the NASA Herschel Science Center at the California  
Institute of Technology, Pasadena; Steve Chesley and Amy Mainzer of  
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.; Bill Bottke of the  
Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colo.; Josh Emery of the  
University of Tennessee, Knoxville; Bryan Penprase of the Pomona  
College, Claremont, Calif.; and John Stansberry of the University of  
Arizona, Tucson.

5) Galaxies' Glory Days Revealed (Aug 18th 2010)
Astronomers have experienced the galactic equivalent of discovering  
pictures of a mild-mannered grandmother partying as a wild youth. New  
observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope reveal the early  
"wild" days of galaxy clusters -- a time when the galaxies were  
bursting with new stars.

What is particularly striking is the fact that the stellar birth rate  
is higher in the cluster's center than at its edges -- the exact  
opposite of what happens in our local portion of the universe, where  
the cores of galaxy clusters are known to be galactic graveyards.

The discovery, made by an international team of researchers led by Kim- 
Vy Tran of Texas A&M University, College Station, could ultimately  
reveal more about how such massive galaxies form.

Tran and her team spent the past four months analyzing images taken by  
Spitzer, essentially looking back in time nearly 10 billion years at a  
distant galaxy cluster known as CLG J02182-05102. Mere months after  
first discovering the cluster and the fact that it is shockingly  
"modern" in its appearance and size for its age, the team was able to  
determine that the galaxy cluster produces hundreds to thousands of  
new stars every year.  That is a far higher birth rate than that of  
galaxies relatively near to us.

"We have revealed the missing link between the active galaxies and the  
quiescent behemoths that live in the local universe," said Tran.

Read more about the discovery at http://www.science.tamu.edu/articles/753

6) NASA's Great Observatories Witness a Galactic Spectacle (Aug 5th  

7) Into the Wild: Spitzer Space Telescope Surveys the Milky Way's  
Outback (Jul 28th 2010)

8) Unravelling the Mystery of Star Birth - Dust Disk Discovered Around  
Massive Star (Jul 14th 2010)

9) Catch a Planet By the Tail (Jul 9th 2010)

10) Spitzer Spies a 'Flying Dragon' Smoldering with Secret Star Birth  
(Jul 7th 2010)

11) The Coolest Stars Come Out of the Dark (Jun 24th 2010)

12) Two Peas in an Irregular Pod: How Binary Stars May Form (May 20th  

13) Ancient City of Galaxies Looks Surprisingly Modern (May 12th 2010)

14) Colony of Young Stars Shines in New Spitzer Image (Apr 1st 2010)

15) Spitzer Space Telescope Team Receives Award (Mar 23rd 2010)

16) Spitzer Detects the 'Heartbeat' of Star Formation in the Milky Way  
Galaxy (Mar 10th 2010)

17) Jurassic Space: Telescopes Probe Ancient Galaxies Near Us (Feb  
18th 2010)

18) Spitzer Goes to the Olympics (Feb 9th 2010)

19) A Quarter Century of Infrared Astronomy (Dec 24th 2009)

20) Unsettled Youth: Spitzer Observes a Chaotic Planetary System (Nov  
4th 2009)

21) Universal Origins (Oct 23rd 2009)

22) Astronomers Do It Again: Find Organic Molecules Around Gas Planet  
(Oct 20th 2009)

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