Milky Way is full of 'toxic space grease', scientists say

"This space grease is not the kind of thing you'd want to spread on a slice of toast," says Professor Tim Schmidt, a chemist at the University of New South Wales.
"This space grease is not the kind of thing you'd want to spread on a slice of toast," says Professor Tim Schmidt, a chemist at the University of New South Wales. Photo credit: AAP

Scientists have discovered that interstellar space is full of grease-like molecules. 

If you were to travel beyond our solar system and into the vastness of the Milky Way galaxy, the windscreen of your future spaceship might pick up a coating of greasy muck. 

"This space grease is not the kind of thing you'd want to spread on a slice of toast," says Professor Tim Schmidt, a chemist at the University of New South Wales and co-author of the study published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

"It's dirty, likely toxic and only forms in the environment of interstellar space - and our laboratory."

The research by Australian and Turkish scientists provides an estimate of just how much "space grease" exists in our galaxy, which brings us closer to understanding how much carbon there is out there - the fuel for stars, planets and life. 

Exactly how much carbon there is in the galaxy has been a mystery for scientists. It's estimated about half of it can be found in its pure form, but the rest is chemically bound with hydrogen to form "space grease" (aliphatic carbon) or a gas version known as naphthalene, which happens to be the main chemical element of moth balls. 

By recreating the carbon-based "space grease" compounds, scientists were able to determine that there is an astonishing 10 billion trillion trillion tonnes of the stuff in space. That's enough to fill 40 trillion trillion trillion packs of butter, the Guardian reports. 

The scientists were able to determine that there is a lot more gaseous carbon in the galaxy than the greasy version. According to the research, there are about 100 greasy carbon atoms for every million hydrogen ones in the Milky Way. 

The research suggests there is more "space grease" in the galaxy than was previously thought. Some scientists have even suggested the substance could have played a role in the creation of life on Earth. 

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