New VLT Observations Clear Up Dusty Mystery

The Universe is overflowing with cosmic dust. Planets form in swirling clouds of dust around a young star; Dust lanes hide more-distant stars in the Milky Way above us; And molecular hydrogen forms on the dust grains in interstellar space.

Even the soot from a candle is very similar to cosmic carbon dust. Both consist of silicate and amorphous carbon grains, although the size grains in the soot are 10 or more times bigger than typical grain sizes in space.

But where does the cosmic dust come from?

A group of astronomers has been able to follow cosmic dust being created in the aftermath of a supernova explosion. The new research not only shows that dust grains form in these massive explosions, but that they can also survive the subsequent shockwaves.

Stars initially draw their energy by fusing hydrogen into helium deep within their cores. But eventually a star will run out of fuel. After slightly messy physics, the star’s contracted core will begin to fuse helium into carbon, while a shell above the core continues to fuse hydrogen into helium.

The pattern continues for medium to high mass stars, creating layers of different nuclear burning around the star’s core. So the cycle of star birth and death has steadily produced and dispersed more heavy elements throughout cosmic history, providing the substances necessary for cosmic dust.

“The problem has been that even though dust grains composed of heavy elements would form in supernovae, the supernova explosion is so violent that the grains of dust may not survive,” said coauthor Jens Hjorth, head of the Dark Cosmology Center at the Niels Bohr Institute in a press release. “But cosmic grains of significant size do exist, so the mystery has been how they are formed and have survived the subsequent shockwaves.”

The team led by Christa Gall used ESO’s Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in northern Chile to observe a supernova, dubbed SN2010jl, nine times in the months following the explosion, and for a tenth time 2.5 years after the explosion. They observed the supernova in both visible and near-infrared wavelengths.

SN2010jl was 10 times brighter than the average supernova, making the exploding star 40 times the mass of the Sun.

“By combining the data from the nine early sets of observations we were able to make the first direct measurements of how the dust around a supernova absorbs the different colours of light,” said lead author Christa Gall from Aarhus University. “This allowed us to find out more about the dust than had been possible before.”

The results indicate that dust formation starts soon after the explosion and continues over a long time period.

The dust initially forms in material that the star expelled into space even before it exploded. Then a second wave of dust formation occurs, involving ejected material from the supernova. Here the dust grains are massive — one thousandth of a millimeter in diameter — making them resilient to any following shockwaves.

“When the star explodes, the shockwave hits the dense gas cloud like a brick wall. It is all in gas form and incredibly hot, but when the eruption hits the ‘wall’ the gas gets compressed and cools down to about 2,000 degrees,” said Gall. “At this temperature and density elements can nucleate and form solid particles. We measured dust grains as large as around one micron (a thousandth of a millimeter), which is large for cosmic dust grains. They are so large that they can survive their onward journey out into the galaxy.”

If the dust production in SN2010jl continues to follow the observed trend, by 25 years after the supernova explosion, the total mass of dust will have half the mass of the Sun.

The results have been published in Nature and are available for download here. Niels Bohr Institute’s press release and ESO’s press release are also available.

2 Replies to “New VLT Observations Clear Up Dusty Mystery”

  1. “when the eruption hits the ‘wall’ the gas gets compressed and cools down to about 2,000 degrees”

    Interesting. In school I was taught that when a gas is compressed, it gets hotter because of the energy needed to compress it. Why does it cool in this situation?

    1. That is because the gas in space is not confined, so it gets hot, and that heat is released to space (which is cold), so gas gets cooler.

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