We know a lot of things about space, and the Milky Way in particular. We know there is dark matter… somewhere. We know that the building blocks of life exist on other planets. And we know that the Earth isn’t fucking flat.
But we also don’t know much at all about space. After all, there’s a lot of space in space. Heck, we’re just now learning things about Pluto, the most famous not-a-planet.
And we’re just learning that space is full of toxic, sticky grease.
A new paper published n the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society reports that the Milky Way Galaxy alone is home to “10 billion, trillion, trillion tonnes of greasy matter, or enough for 40 trillion, trillion, trillion packs of butter.”
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That’s a lot of butter. However, you probably don’t want to put it on toast.
Or maybe you do. Whatever, I’m not your dad.
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According to Dr. Tim Schmidt, a chemist at the University of South Wales (who also happens to be the co-author of the study), “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.”
Here’s how they did it, according to the paper:
Organic matter of different kinds contains carbon, an element considered essential for life. There is though real uncertainty over its abundance, and only half the carbon expected is found between the stars in its pure form. The rest is chemically bound in two main forms, grease-like (aliphatic) and mothball-like (aromatic).
The UNSW / Ege team used a laboratory to create material with the same properties as interstellar dust. They mimicked the process by which organic molecules are synthesised in the outflows of carbon stars, by expanding a carbon-containing plasma into a vacuum at low temperature. The material was collected and then analysed by a combination of techniques. Using magnetic resonance and spectroscopy (splitting light into its constituent wavelengths) they were able to determine how strongly the material absorbed light with a certain infrared wavelength, a marker for aliphatic carbon.
“Combining our lab results with observations from astronomical observatories allows us to measure the amount of aliphatic carbon between us and the stars”, explained Professor Tim Schmidt, from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Exciton Science in the School of Chemistry at UNSW Sydney.
The researchers found that there are about 100 greasy carbon atoms for every million hydrogen atoms, accounting for between a quarter and a half of the available carbon. In the Milky Way Galaxy, this amounts to about 10 billion trillion trillion tonnes of greasy matter, or enough for 40 trillion trillion trillion packs of butter.
The grease essentially smells like mothballs (naphthalene)
Inverse.com explains more:
Interstellar carbon can exist as aliphatic, aka space grease, or as aromatic carbon, which scientists consider “mothball-like” and not nearly as delicious-sounding. Prior to this study, estimates of either were scant, but researchers found that there are roughly 100 greasy carbon atoms for every million hydrogen atoms, meaning the key to life in space is a greasy sludge just spreading across the Milky Way’s countertops.
The team was able to reach this calculation by recreating interstellar dust in a lab and then mimicking the process by which organic molecules are synthesized in the discharge of carbon stars. Aliphatic carbon can be detected by its ability to absorb light and scientists could spot its presence by using magnetic resonance and spectroscopy, which splits light into wavelengths.
According to Schmidt, the grease would coat a spacecraft traveling through it, though he noted that it isn’t the biggest danger to an interstellar spaceship:
There will be material that will coat space craft, but I would worry more about the little rocks and many asteroids that are around planetary systems. Once you’re into deep space, there is really only the very small particles.