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The Milky Way Is Full Of Toxic Space Grease, Research Finds

Jun 30, 2018 01:01 AM EDT
Milky Way
Interstellar dust in the Milky Way is made up of little more than dirty, toxic space grease, scientists say.
(Photo : Rene Tittmann | Pixabay)

The Milky Way looks to be made entirely of magical space dust from a distance, but a new study reveals that it's surprisingly greasy in reality.

Much of the universe, it turns out, is just space grease that's actually extremely toxic.

Recreating Interstellar Dust In The Lab

The paper, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, reports how an international team of researchers recreated materials with the same properties of interstellar dust to find strikingly grease-like results.

The group focused on carbon for their experiments. A report from the Royal Astronomical Society notes that while carbon is very abundant throughout the universe, only half of the carbon in space is actually in its pure form. The other half is chemically bound in two different forms: aromatic carbon that's described as mothball-like, and aliphatic carbon that's grease-like.

To analyze the composition of carbon in the universe, the team, consisting of scientists from the University of New South Wales in Sydney and Ege University in Turkey, concocted materials with the same properties of interstellar dust in the laboratory. Then they used magnetic resonance and spectroscopy to measure how much aliphatic carbon is present in the results.

The Results

They discovered that there's a lot a lot of grease in space: around 100 greasy carbon atoms for every 1 million hydrogen atoms. This means around a quarter to a half of the carbon around are greasy, translating to 10 billion trillion trillion tons of grease-like carbon in the Milky Way.

"This space grease is not the kind of thing you'd want to spread on a slice of toast!" Professor Tim Schmidt of UNSW Sydney explains 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."

The next step is accounting for the other form of chemically bound carbon: aromatic or the mothball type.

Popular Mechanics points out that carbon plays an important role as the fourth most abundant element in the entire universe. The carbon in interstellar dust is actually debris from carbon stars since stellar winds can sweep away about half of this type of star's total mass.

This magical dust becomes the raw materials that goes on to create future stars.

In line with this recent study, scientists are hoping to discover how much of each type of carbon is in interstellar dust, which will in turn reveal how much of the element is available to create life.

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