Milky Way Is Full of Potentially Toxic Space Grease

Milky Way Is Full of Potentially Toxic Space Grease
Milky Way Is Full of Potentially Toxic Space Grease

While space is a vast void, scientists now say that it could also be quite greasy. An international team of scientists has recreated materials with the same properties as interstellar dust, and they found that the composition is strikingly similar to grease. Moreover, they contend that “space grease” is common across the Milky Way.

In a study recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, researchers at the University of New South Wales in Sydney (UNSW) and Ege University in Turkey focused on the fourth most abundant element in the universe: carbon. Around half the carbon found in space is pure carbon, while the other half is chemically bound in two forms. One is a bond that resembles a mothball, called aromatic carbon, while the other resembles grease and is called aliphatic.

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Carbon in interstellar dust is the outflow of what are known as carbon stars, typically a red giant that contains more carbon than oxygen. Powerful stellar winds can blow away around half of a carbon star’s total mass, creating interstellar dust.

Far from detritus, that dust plays a crucial role in the continued growth and evolution of the universe by providing the raw materials for future stars. Essentially just particles, the interstellar dust has amazing traveling capabilities. Back in 2014, interstellar dust became the first material scientists had ever collected from outside the solar system. 

To recreate it in a lab, the scientists placed carbon-containing plasma into a vacuum at a low temperature. Once the material was collected, the scientists used magnetic resonance and spectroscopy, the dividing of light into wavelengths, to understand how much material absorbed a particular frequency of infrared light.

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They found approximately 100 greasy carbon atoms for every million hydrogen atoms. That means greasy carbon accounts for anywhere between a quarter to half of all carbon within the interstellar dust. Scaling up to the entire Milky Way, there are an estimated 10 billion trillion trillion tonnes of greasy carbon in the galaxy.

“This space grease is not the kind of thing you’d want to spread on a slice of toast!” says Tim Schmidt, a researcher at the School of Chemistry at UNSW Sydney and a co-author of the paper, in a press 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.”

Maybe one day we will find a way to use the space grease to lubricate our interstellar ships. Until then, the greasy space carbon adds another piece to the puzzle of planetary formation across the galaxy.

Source: Royal Astronomy Society