Where Did Early Cosmic Dust Come From? New Research Says Supernovae

Article written: 7 Jul , 2011
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015


From a JPL Press Release:

New observations from the infrared Herschel Space Observatory reveal that an exploding star expelled the equivalent of between 160,000 and 230,000 Earth masses of fresh dust. This enormous quantity suggests that exploding stars, called supernovae, are the answer to the long-standing puzzle of what supplied our early universe with dust.

“This discovery illustrates the power of tackling a problem in astronomy with different wavelengths of light,” said Paul Goldsmith, the NASA Herschel project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., who is not a part of the current study. “Herschel’s eye for longer-wavelength infrared light has given us new tools for addressing a profound cosmic mystery.”

Cosmic dust is made of various elements, such as carbon, oxygen, iron and other atoms heavier than hydrogen and helium. It is the stuff of which planets and people are made, and it is essential for star formation. Stars like our sun churn out flecks of dust as they age, spawning new generations of stars and their orbiting planets.

Astronomers have for decades wondered how dust was made in our early universe. Back then, sun-like stars had not been around long enough to produce the enormous amounts of dust observed in distant, early galaxies. Supernovae, on the other hand, are the explosions of massive stars that do not live long.

The new Herschel observations are the best evidence yet that supernovae are, in fact, the dust-making machines of the early cosmos.

This plot shows energy emitted from a supernova remnant called SN 1987A. Previously, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope detected warm dust around the object. Image credit: ESA/NASA-JPL/UCL/STScI

“The Earth on which we stand is made almost entirely of material created inside a star,” explained the principal investigator of the survey project, Margaret Meixner of the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md. “Now we have a direct measurement of how supernovae enrich space with the elements that condense into the dust that is needed for stars, planets and life.”

The study, appearing in the July 8 issue of the journal Science, focused on the remains of the most recent supernova to be witnessed with the naked eye from Earth. Called SN 1987A, this remnant is the result of a stellar blast that occurred 170,000 light-years away and was seen on Earth in 1987. As the star blew up, it brightened in the night sky and then slowly faded over the following months. Because astronomers are able to witness the phases of this star’s death over time, SN 1987A is one of the most extensively studied objects in the sky.

A new view from the Hubble Space Telescope shows how supernova 1987A has recently brightened.

Initially, astronomers weren’t sure if the Herschel telescope could even see this supernova remnant. Herschel detects the longest infrared wavelengths, which means it can see very cold objects that emit very little heat, such as dust. But it so happened that SN 1987A was imaged during a Herschel survey of the object’s host galaxy — a small neighboring galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud (it’s called large because it’s bigger than its sister galaxy, the Small Magellanic Cloud).

After the scientists retrieved the images from space, they were surprised to see that SN 1987A was aglow with light. Careful calculations revealed that the glow was coming from enormous clouds of dust — consisting of 10,000 times more material than previous estimates. The dust is minus 429 to minus 416 degrees Fahrenheit (about minus 221 to 213 Celsius) — colder than Pluto, which is about minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit (204 degrees Celsius).

“Our Herschel discovery of dust in SN 1987A can make a significant understanding in the dust in the Large Magellanic Cloud,” said Mikako Matsuura of University College London, England, the lead author of the Science paper. “In addition to the puzzle of how dust is made in the early universe, these results give us new clues to mysteries about how the Large Magellanic Cloud and even our own Milky Way became so dusty.”

Previous studies had turned up some evidence that supernovae are capable of producing dust. For example, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which detects shorter infrared wavelengths than Herschel, found 10,000 Earth-masses worth of fresh dust around the supernova remnant called Cassiopea A. Hershel can see even colder material, and thus the coldest reservoirs of dust. “The discovery of up to 230,000 Earths worth of dust around SN 1987A is the best evidence yet that these monstrous blasts are indeed mighty dust makers,” said Eli Dwek, a co-author at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Herschel is led by the European Space Agency with important contributions from NASA.

See also the ESA press release on this research.

13 Responses

  1. Anonymous says

    Your joking me,, how could supernova be responsible for all dust when the stars must First be formed from the dust??

    • Anonymous says

      This largely confirms what was pretty well known from the start. The earliest stars were composed entirely of hydrogen. Subsequent generations of stars have heavier elements.


      • ExcaliburClan says

        Small nitpick, i suspect the first stars included a significant amount of Helium to go with the Hydrogen.

      • Anonymous says

        That is true. Helium is about 25% of atomic species produced.


    • Torbjörn Larsson says

      Clouds. I believe stars are formed from cloud aggregation, which means non-metal gas (hydrogen, helium) is perfectly good as other commenters say.

      I also believe the formation process of the first stars are up for grabs.

      For example, unless I misunderstood/misremember, the hypothesis that dark matter was essential has been raised. Still, DM isn’t dust, it doesn’t form EM bonds.

  2. Member
    • Torbjörn Larsson says


      My fast&furious take is:

      – There is a mix of species, no single species can explain the observations.
      – Models give mostly C, O, Si. I’m sure Venus/early Earth/Mars will be glad for the company.
      – Dust aggregates mostly after explosion, on the time scale of the observation, or ~ 20 years. (And aggregation may continue for a while, I guess.)

      And I learned dust has an estimated lifetime of 10^8 ~ 10^9 years.

      Looks like it predicts exactly what happens under my furniture: dust collects fast, lots of organics, takes a long time to remove.

    • Anonymous says

      In addition a team of researchers also reports on submillimeter APEX observations of SN 1987A mentioned in the Herschel paper(thanx for the link IVAN3MAN):

      “The remnant of SN1987A revealed at (sub-)mm wavelengths”: http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/1107/1107.1323v1.pdf

      [who said arXiv was not a good source of science papers? :^) ]

      • Lord Haw-Haw. says

        Splendid link of endorsement, kudos where would we be without arXiv?

        While there have been some minor criticisms of the arXiv archive it remains a reputable source of open access publishing with some 5,000 monthly additions.
        While submissions are not peer reviewed they are filtered by a team of moderators in conjunction with an endorsement system.


  3. Anonymous says

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andormada, about the perseues arm of the solar freedom geo omega descik & domicile, the peace is the state when names are born, as ideal or concept, merely names , alas, yet with the spirit so much more with liberty may the freedom enlivine arts and discipline of per & pre psy/cicse sciences if ya care the mathmatical term transcribed the definitions of numeralogic criteria’s design, formula democracy determines this wills’ vision of a culture animitated and engauged to nones bereft neglect, mutual benefit of such even dissent is a value, unique like a spark, like anything, wild, a savage or wise, tame or kind, a true or evil posture & attatude is plain to the sences even if the energy& current recess upon the intuitition & instinct moments casual reclines, the 1rst time, benefit of the doubt, given naturally most usually reserved for volition an individual may command, would celestial strangers require some notion of bias concerning say perhaps, what or need, to merely observe is to stare, ever wonder what the all hearing intellagience may say or tell if only allowed, a voice leant of dissent oh of what the stars du say, zoom in on a nice stable blue star and pre-supposse or better yet, pretend to discover, if a city or sign of life forgot its notes or arts, exspressed, try the culture or the live music for the heart of the matter as to why,oo,,, lightning strikes also elsewhares in the stars besides the home of the moon & the tides, plainly the spirit aka motive & intent of technologies post industrial 21rst exploratory reconnasience & local proxima tresspass & exsploitive manouvours haphazard even the mission priority, militaristic the commercialised frontier, to seek out life’s forms, yeah right, more like securing a platform on which to secure the unprogressive anti revolutionary tyrannies the status quo insures merely its own archiac models of rote sensastional temporal finite consumptions, fantasies & dalussion the superficial exspiereince piloted with nither a purpose, destination, non exsclusive right or need, the indulgience personafied serving the machine head concept of the digital automazation fated determination, concealed the securing of the incubation and hatching of layered strata, class & rank, insect patterened motus operendi, the aristocratic, monarchial or hiearchial arraingments of vermin & swine in acts and werks, technolgy in perpetuation un to it self & at the exspence of all else save maybe the pollution of a bankrupt rhetoric proclaiming all for the dog, as if a buried bone lost the state of the art , as usual robbed or looted from days of previous civilazations past, no exsclusive license is due these undemocratic evolutions, war based petroleum manufacture convulsed into a personafied textile standard of incorperation, refined the distilled entity, incarnaite the artificial & synthetically derived and really a counterfeit perversion of the originals craft trade parameters, much larger than the whitewash & coverup that passes for aeronautics iether civilian or the opposite paralell on mission to deceive the rights that freedom claims in pursuits genuine & sincere, truly a bondage or tyranny is visible as chain or cage prior a shift between agrarian or industrial sinister purpose & ulterior motive, did the machine liberate the peasant serf, now a slave is the robot clone stamped, digital automazation, airborn & remotely controlled accountable to only maggotwares intricite & miniscuille indeed, pray to logic, technical, to solve the conveiyiences accounts, almost as it spawns the larvall hatching that is the technique of beaurocratic media or “I.T.” thought control as is the guise of “space” exploration, technically the logic suggests an attitude, posture or i ya like “behaivor” indicites an evil conspired, a robot ghoul, a cloned counterfeit and at least 1 maggotware or monstorous creation, yer imagagry & dialog resemble the browns of near earth jingoistic hype or gated starlight concerning propaganda,,,lets chat about communication satalites HAL, better ask yer headbot, tell “it” were stardust & so is iron, eat yer chest cavity out,HAL, u r ?free?, ya know unenslaved,oo,,,& that includes the war machine Too

  4. Torbjörn Larsson says

    Thanks for this, it is awesome; that is some serious amount of dust!

    [aging universe, Samuel J version] “Hey, stop dirtying my space and GET THE F%&K OFF MY LAWN!” [/aging universe, Samuel J version]

    But it so happened that SN 1987A was imaged during a Herschel survey of the object’s host galaxy — a small neighboring galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud (it’s called large because it’s bigger than its sister galaxy, the Small Magellanic Cloud).

    As always hard to push too much into an article, but I believe the name comes from that the cloud _appears_ larger.

    The naming has a long history (the clouds first mentioned and named 964 by Al Sufi). But the separation into large and small cloud was done latest 1603 by Johann Bayer. That was far too early to know the actual distances involved I think, even if early astronomers for good reason may have assumed they went together.

    Or do astronomers use Earth frame apparent size as much as they use Earth frame time when describing astronomical events? “Will you look at that _big_ star!? It is called the Sun, I believe.”

    Also, I leave the [ivan mode] missing punctuation/concatenated sentences as an exercise for [ivan mode] users. =D

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