Interstellar space, or the empty place between stars, is anything but empty. According to a new study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, this specific part of the cosmos — which contains the interstellar medium, made up of dust clouds and electromagnetic radiation — also houses vast quantities of grease-like carbon molecules.
This greasy carbon-based substance, which has gained the moniker of “space grease,” is floating around within the interstellar dust, in a fine and possibly toxic mist known as aliphatic carbon, reports Newsweek.
Perhaps the most curious thing about it is how much of it there actually is in space. This “space grease” is present in such staggering amounts that a hypothetical interstellar spaceship hypothetically cruising through this part of the cosmic neighborhood would probably get a sticky coating on its hypothetical windscreen, notes The Guardian.
“Amongst other stuff it’ll run into is interstellar dust, which is partly grease, partly soot and partly silicates like sand,” said study co-author Prof. Tim Schmidt, a chemist at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia.
In fact, there’s so much of this greasy stuff out there that the universe is chock-full of it. For instance, our own galaxy contains 10 billion trillion trillion tons of “space grease,” revealed the new study. That’s enough to fill 40 trillion trillion trillion packs of butter, states the British media outlet.
Space is full of dirty, toxic grease, scientists reveal https://t.co/wazJM10p5w— Guardian US (@GuardianUS) June 28, 2018
Commenting on the new discovery, Schmidt described just what we’re dealing with.
“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.”
The research, conducted by scientists from UNSW and Ege University in Turkey, set out to uncover how much organic matter (carbon-based substances that are among the building blocks of life) can be found in the interstellar space.
The answer to this question has long remained a mystery, given that half of the carbon estimated to exist in this neck of the woods is not pure, but is actually chemically bound with hydrogen and goes on to form aliphatic carbon (the grease-like version of this compound) and aromatic carbon (the gaseous variety).
To get to the bottom of this, the team recreated the carbon-based compounds in the lab and measured how much aliphatic carbon is produced within the interstellar dust.
“Combining our lab results with observations from astronomical observatories allows us to measure the amount of aliphatic carbon between us and the stars,” explained Schmidt.
The final tally showed that there are roughly 100 greasy carbon atoms for every million hydrogen atoms, which means that a quarter and up to half of the interstellar space is made up of aliphatic carbon.
So, why haven’t we detected any of this stuff before in our solar system? Well, as Schmidt points out, the “space grease” found within our borders is swept away by the solar wind.
But there’s more to aliphatic carbon than just plain old space gloop. Just like the other materials found in the interstellar medium, this organic compound gets churned into new stars and planets, eventually becoming a part of life, says Schmidt.
“It’s made in stars, goes through the interstellar medium and gets incorporated into new planetary systems and has ended up incorporated into life. It’s part of the big story, the biggest story there is.”