The study, conducted by the University of New South Wales in Australia and Ege University in Turkey, sought to better estimate how much organic matter is in space, giving scientists greater insight into how life is formed.
A team of eight scientists recreated and analyzed material similar to interstellar dust, and used it to estimated how many grease-like carbon molecules (scientifically known as aliphatic carbon) are in interstellar space, beyond the bounds of our solar system.
The estimated amount of “space grease” in the Milky Way far exceeded expectations: 10 billion trillion trillion tonnes — or enough to fill 40 trillion trillion trillion packs of butter.
Space is not just greasy, but dirty, said Tim Schmidt, co-author of the study and professor at UNSW.
“Think of it more as like greasy soot,” Schmidt told CNN. “It’s not a pure substance, it’s not biological. It’s random, it’s not something that you want to eat. It would make things dirty like soot would.”
The team was able to quantify space grease more precisely than ever before, but the material itself isn’t a new discovery.
“It’s not so dissimilar from what was recently found in Mars,” Schmidt said, referring to organic matter that NASA’s Curiosity rover found this month. “This kind of material is everywhere in the galaxy.”
The creation of life
The findings, which were published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, bring scientists closer to understanding the birth of stars and planets, and the formation of life.
Many young stars are made of carbon, among other matter. Carbon is also believed to be an essential building block of life.
Prior to this study, scientists had only estimates of interstellar carbon, which exists in two forms: space grease, and what scientists have dubbed “mothball-like” (aromatic carbon).
The new, precise figures of space grease is the first step. The next will be to calculate the amount of mothball-like carbon. That’s expected to take another three years.
Although Schmidt said he felt the space grease study was “a significant achievement,” he is excited to tackle the next problem.
“Aliphatic material is kind of boring,” he said. “It’s grease. The aromatic carbon actually has a relationship with graphene (a semi-metal), which makes it quite interesting. So researching in that direction is going to be pretty interesting.”