The Skies Are Made of Butter: Most of the Universe's Carbon Is Contained in Free-Floating "Space Grease"

Thursday, 28 June 2018 - 12:00PM
Astronomy
Space
Thursday, 28 June 2018 - 12:00PM
The Skies Are Made of Butter: Most of the Universe's Carbon Is Contained in Free-Floating "Space Grease"
< >
Image Credit: Composite created from images from Pixabay
When most people imagine space, they usually see it as a cold, empty void with some dust and gas floating around, but that's about it. They certainly don't imagine flying through space as a journey through a giant tub of interstellar grease, but that's probably closer to the truth: new research has found that there is roughly 10 billion trillion trillion metric tons of carbon-based grease drifting across the universe. 

This discovery is much more than just a space oddity, however—the grease is a combination of hydrogen and carbon (called "aliphatic carbon"), and along with naphthalene and pure carbon, measuring it will help scientists account for a large portion of the carbon in the cosmos, as well as figure out how much carbon is available to create organic compounds, which are the building blocks for life. According to Professor Tim Schmidt, of the University of New South Wales, Sydney:  "It's part of understanding the great life-cycle of carbon. It's made in stars, goes through the interstellar medium and gets incorporated into new planetary systems and has ended up incorporated into life. It's part of the big story, the biggest story there is."

To identify the grease and figure out how much of it is spread across space, researchers created an artificial version of it in a lab and examined it using spectroscopy, which measures how much light the substance absorbs at various wavelengths. Apart from figuring out its characteristics, they found that the grease is generally unpleasant—according to Schmidt: "This space grease is not the kind of thing you'd want to spread on a slice of toast. It's dirty, likely toxic and only forms in the environment of interstellar space–and our laboratory."

Apart from understanding the life cycle of carbon in the universe, the researchers hope to understand the role this space grease plays in interstellar dust, which is actually a combination of grease, soot, and sand-like rock particles. According to Helen Fraser, of Open University: "The consequence could be important in how such dust grains stick and form planets, or even 'seed' planetary surfaces with the ingredients for the origins of life."
Science
Science News
Astronomy
Space
No