Science

Astronomers discover space is absolutely full of grease

There is enough ‘space grease' to fill 40 trillion trillion trillion packs of butter, scientists found.

Space may be cold and dark but it is also full of toxic grease, astronomers have found.

Scientists based in Australia and Turkey discovered this after recreating chemical compounds in the laboratory with the same properties as interstellar dust.

Their findings show there are about 100 “greasy” carbon atoms for every million hydrogen atoms.

According to the researchers, this amounts to around 10 billion trillion trillion tonnes of greasy matter in the Milky Way – roughly equivalent to 40 trillion trillion trillion packs of butter.

Astronomers at the University of New South Wales in Sydney (UNSW) and Ege University in Turkey manufactured the material in the laboratory by replicating the process of organic molecules being created in carbon-rich stars.

Greasy carbon molecule.
An illustration of the structure of a greasy carbon molecule (D Young/The Galactic Centre/PA)

The team used magnetic resonance and spectroscopy, which involves splitting light into its constituent wavelengths, to determine the chemical composition of the material and found the hydrocarbons in it to have a grease-like or aliphatic form.

All organic matter contains carbon, which is considered an essential ingredient of life.

Although there has been some uncertainty over actually how much carbon is floating around in the stars, it is estimated only half exists in its pure form.

The rest is chemically bound with hydrogen in two main forms: grease-like (aliphatic) – like for example, alkanes, isoparaffins and alkenes which are the major components of petroleum – and mothball-like (aromatic) – like benzene or napthalene.

Professor Tim Schmidt, from UNSW Sydney, said: “Combining our lab results with observations from astronomical observatories allows us to measure the amount of aliphatic carbon between us and the stars.”

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For those wondering whether this grease is edible, Mr Schmidt added: “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).

“It’s also intriguing that organic material of this kind, material that gets incorporated into planetary systems, is so abundant.”

The researchers now want to determine how much of the aromatic form of hydrocarbon is present among the stars.

Mr Schmidt added: “By firmly establishing the amount of each type of carbon in the dust, they will know precisely how much of this element is available to create life.”

The research is published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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