A violent supernova about 160 million light years away from our planet has helped scientists solve the long-standing mystery behind the origin of cosmic dust. Cosmic dust grains are the building blocks fort he formation of planets and stars. Researchers had long believed that fast-moving particles and high temperatures created by supernovas were unsuitable for the formation of cosmic dust because dust gains require less-violet interactions and cooler temperatures.

Supernova SN2010jl

 

Supernova leads to cosmic dust formation

Turns out, cosmic dust is produced by violent supernova explosions. For the time ever, a team of scientists watched the formation of cosmic dust by monitoring a supernova with the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. The dust production is a two-step process, says Christa Gall of Aarhus University in Denmark. Gall is the lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Nature.

But how do supernovas produce so much dust? Well, a star processes through fusion. Hydrogen atoms fuse to form heavier elements, while giving off radiation as heat and light. At every stage, they form a variety of elements such as silicon, carbon, hydrogen, iron and magnesium in its core. Eventually, when the star runs out of hydrogen, it explodes and its innards blow outward through space.

Supernova SN2010jl exploded in 2010

But that environment didn’t seem conducive to the formation of cosmic dust grains. The explosion of supernova SN2010jl took place in 2010. Located in the galaxy UGC 5189A, it was ten times brighter than a typical supernova. Gall and her team studied it nine times after its discovery, which happened a month after it exploded. Researchers studied it again about two-and-a-half years after its violent explosion.

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Scientists found that when the star exploded, a shock wave teared through the elements, which vaporized existing dust. Soon after the wave, dust grains of carbon form a dense shell where temperature is cool enough for dust to condense from the gas. That’s the first stage of cosmic dust formation. In the next stage, growing dust clouds bring down the temperature of remaining supernova, allowing more gas molecules to form dust.