Detection of cosmic fullerenes in the Almahata Sitta meteorite

In the framework of an international collaboration (1), a team from Toulouse (IRAP, UT3-CNRS-CNES) has just published the first unambiguous detection, in a meteorite, of buckminsterfullerene (C60) and other fullerenes up to a typical size of about 100 carbon atoms. A fullerene molecule is made up of an assembly of hexagonal and pentagonal rings, which can give it a spherical (case of C60) or ellipsoidal (case of C70) shape.

Left: Fragment of the Almahata Sitta meteorite observed with a digital microscope / Right: structure of the C60 molecule.
© Left : H. Sabbah / Right :

Using the AROMA (Astrochemistry Research of Organics with Molecular Analyzer) laboratory astrophysics facility at IRAP, scientists were able to detect fullerenes in seven ureilite (2) samples from the Almahata Sitta meteorite (AhS). Their non-detection in the Murchison and Allende primitive chondrites shows that these species are absent or have a lower concentration in these chondrites. Nevertheless, all the samples studied show a distribution of hydrogenated polycyclic aromatic molecules (PAHs), demonstrating that these PAHs come from a different reservoir. The most catastrophic event experienced by AhS is its fragmentation by a meteorite impact. However, the temperature reached is not sufficient to understand the origin of the fullerenes. Another possibility, which remains to be demonstrated, is that of an interstellar heritage, with a production linked to the presence of a massive star close to the molecular cloud which gave rise to the Solar System. These scenarios must be deepened by a systematic search for fullerenes, especially in the most primitive objects of the Solar System.

Mass spectrum of the ureilite-like fragment AhS #04 recorded with the AROMA device. The observed peaks are attributed to fullerenes. The structure associated with each peak highlights the presence of species comprising one or two 13C atoms.

C60 is the largest molecule identified to date within interstellar and circumstellar environments. This work opens perspectives not only for the formation of the Solar System, but also for the search for fullerenes in astrophysical environments, a topic that should progress rapidly with the upcoming observations of the James Webb Space Telescope.


1 This interdisciplinary work was initiated within the framework of the ERC Synergy NANOCOSMOS project.

2 Ureilites are a type of stony meteorite that represent the mantle of a partially differentiate, carbon-rich asteroid.

Further Resources

IRAP Contacts

  • Hassan Sabbah,
  • Christine Joblin,

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