Friday, July 16, 1999 Published at 18:05 GMT 19:05 UK
Rare form of carbon found in space
New form of carbon may have been brought to Earth in meteorites
By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse
Proof that a rare form of carbon could be drifting in the vast spaces between the stars has been found by a team of scientists from the University of Hawaii.
It is a discovery that may have implications for the origin of life on Earth and possibly elsewhere in the Universe.
"It's not every day that you discover a new carbon molecule in nature; that's what makes this interesting," Dr Luann Becker says.
Their discovery in 1985 as only the third form of pure carbon (along with diamonds and graphite) earned its discoverers the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Since then scientists have speculated that fullerenes also exist naturally in the Universe
Dr Becker has already discovered the presence of fullerenes in deposits at the site of the Sudbury meteor impact crater in Canada. She could not be sure however that the fullerenes came from outer space or were made on Earth by the impact.
Scientists are able to detect naturally occurring fullerenes by exploiting a unique property they posses. Unlike their other pure-carbon relations fullerenes dissolve in a particular solvent.
Dr Becker crushed a piece of the Allende meteorite which fell into Mexico in 1969, treated it with acids and used the organic solvent to extract fullerenes from the residue.
Researchers speculate that, because because the football-shaped molecule can trap other atoms inside it, they may have carried gases from elsewhere in the cosmos and deposited them into the Earth's original atmosphere billions of years ago.
Some of these molecules may have played a role in the origin of life.
Whilst that is highly speculative, at the very least, the fullerenes detected in the meteorite will tell scientists more about the conditions around the early Sun when meteorites like Allende were formed.