Science

The Universe Is Chock-Full Of Filthy 'Space Grease'

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There’s enough greasy matter in the Milky Way for 40 trillion trillion trillion packs of butter, according to a new study of the space between the stars.

In the research, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, a team of Australian and Turkish astronomers found that there are about 100 “greasy” carbon atoms for every million hydrogen atoms in the Universe.

“This space grease is not the kind of thing you’d want to spread on a slice of toast!” said Professor Tim Schmidt , from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Exciton Science in the School of Chemistry at UNSW Sydney, in a statement.

“It’s dirty, likely toxic and only forms in the environment of interstellar space (and our laboratory). It’s also intriguing that organic material of this kind – material that gets incorporated into planetary systems – is so abundant.”

NASA/JPL-Caltech

This dazzling infrared image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope shows hundreds of thousands of stars crowded into the swirling core of our spiral Milky Way galaxy.

We’re really not sure how abundant carbon, an essential component for life as we know it, is in the Universe. Only half of what is expected can be found in its pure form and the rest is chemically bound in two main forms, grease-like (aliphatic) and mothball-like (aromatic).

Schmidt and his team set out to discover how much greasy carbon there was by recreating interstellar dust in their laboratory. They copied the process by which organic molecules are made by stars by expanding a carbon-containing plasma into a vacuum at a low temperature. They could then analyse how strongly the dust absorbed light with a specific infrared wavelength, which indicates aliphatic carbon.

“Combining our lab results with observations from astronomical observatories allows us to measure the amount of aliphatic carbon between us and the stars”, explained Schmidt.

This experiment led them to conclude that toxic, greasy carbon accounts for between a quarter and a half of the available carbon in the Universe.

The next step is to figure out the abundance of mothball-like or aromatic carbon. If scientists knew how much of each type of carbon there was in the space between the stars, they could make a reasonable conjecture about how much of this element exists in the Universe. That would also help tell us how likely carbon-based life-forms are outside of Earth.

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