Scientists have now tracked cosmic dust and uncovered evidence that these building blocks of life may be given the push they need to form planets by the huge stellar explosions known as supernovas, writes Rachel Feltman for the Washington Post.
Cosmic dust captured by SOFIA
A team of researchers, led by Cornell postdoctoral associate in astronomy Ryan Lau, published a study on the matter in the journal Science this Thursday. The team undertook the first direct observations of cosmic dust coming directly out of a supernova. The scene was captured by NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), which the scientists used to examine Supernova Remnant Sagittarius A East in infrared.
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It was already known that supernovas produced dust which planted the seeds of new planets and stars around the universe, but scientists were not sure whether the dust could survive such a violent process. By studying the supernova in infrared, the team were able to determine that it had retained between 7 and 20% of the dust created by the explosion.
From violent explosion to new galaxies
“Our observations reveal a particular cloud produced by a supernova explosion 10,000 years ago contains enough dust to make 7,000 Earths,” said Lau in a statement. The dust which survived was then able to flow back into interstellar space, where it could provide material for the formation of new planets and galaxies.
According to Lau the discovery was made thanks to SOFIA, a flying observatory which is contained in a modified Boeing 747SP jumbo jet. He was full of praise for SOFIA, and seemed excited by the research.
“We were on a flying observatory traveling at 600 mph (965 km/h) at an altitude of 45,000 feet (13,715 meters) to take images of a 10,000-year-old supernova remnant located 27,000 light-years away from us at the center of our galaxy,” Lau told Space.com. “No other currently operating observatory other than the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy could detect this dust.”
The groundbreaking research reveals just how important supernovae are in the creation of new planets and galaxies.