What makes up the tenuous gas and dust that pervades our galaxy, filling the space between stars? What kinds of complex molecules form naturally in our universe? Where might these molecules form? And how are they distributed throughout space? Over the vast, empty reaches of interstellar space, countless small molecules tumble quietly though the cold vacuum. Forged in the fusion furnaces of ancient stars and ejected into space when those stars exploded, these lonely molecules account for a significant amount of all the carbon, hydrogen, silicon, and other atoms in the universe. In fact, some 20 percent of all the carbon in the universe is thought to exist as some form of interstellar molecule. Many astronomers hypothesize that these interstellar molecules are responsible for an observed phenomenon on Earth known as "diffuse interstellar bands," spectrographic proof that something out there in the universe is absorbing certain distinct colors of light from stars before it reaches the Earth. But since we don't know the exact chemical composition and atomic arrangements of these mysterious molecules, it remains unproven whether they are, in fact, responsible for the diffuse interstellar bands. Now, from a jumble of confusing clues in Hubble observations, scientists have picked out evidence of a celebrity molecule in interstellar space – the soccer-ball shaped ionized Buckminsterfullerene molecule, or buckyballs.
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