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http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexknapp/2012/02/24/nasa-detects-solid-buckyballs-in-space/

I refer to the above article, which mentions that buckyballs "far smaller than the width of a hair" were detected 6,500 light years from Earth. How do scientists manage to detect such small objects at such a distance, and what techniques do scientists use to identify them?

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One of the routine methods for detecting the presence of chemical compounds is infrared spectroscopy, and you'll find infrared spectrometers scattered around any terrestrial orgganic chemistry lab. Organic compounds absorb infrared light at characteristic frequencies, and those absorption lines can be used as a fingerprint to detect the molecule.

Exactly the same method is used to detect organic molecules in space. The Spitzer telescope is an infrared telescope, and it can record infrared spectra such as this one:

Buckyball spectra

(see here for the original source and here for the corresponding article)

that show the presence of Buckyballs (as well as the larger C$_{70}$ molecules).

This spectrum is actually from the 2010 detection of Buckyballs. The work you link is from 2012 and detects Buckyballs in an aggregated form. I can't find the spectra for this online, but the work is based on changes to the spectra caused by the moecules aggregating to form a larger particle.

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  • $\begingroup$ Very interesting. Thanks for the concise explanation. $\endgroup$ – Razorlance Jul 31 '15 at 6:07

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