First Ever Direct Observations of Cosmic Dust in the Center of the Milky Way Made

First Posted: Mar 20, 2015 07:24 AM EDT

Astronomers have made the first ever direct observations of cosmic building-block dust in the center of our Milky Way galaxy. This dust, which has the ability to form stars, was created by an ancient supernova.

"Dust itself is very important because it's the stuff that forms stars and plants, like the sun and Earth, respectively, so to know where it comes from is an important question," said Ryan Lau, lead author of the new study, in a news release. "Our work strongly reinforces the theory that supernovae are producing the dust seen in galaxies of the early universe."

One of astronomy's biggest mysteries is why galaxies contain so much dust. The leading theory is that supernovae contain large amounts of metal-enriched material that, in turn, harbors key ingredients of dust, like silicon, iron and carbon.

In this latest study, the researchers studied Sagittarius A East, which is a 10,000-year-old supernova remnant near the center of our galaxy. When a supernova explodes, the materials in its center expand and form dust. In the turbulent supernova environment, though, scientists expect the churning dust to be destroyed. That's why researchers decided to directly observe the object.

The astronomers used FORCAST (the Faint object Infrared Camera Telescope) aboard SOFIA (the Stratospheric observatory for Infrared Astronomy), a modified Boeing 747. By using this instrument, the researchers were able to directly observe the supernova.

"There have been no direct observations of any dust surviving the environment of the supernova remnant...until now, and that's why our observations of an 'old' supernova are so important," said Lau.

The findings are published in the journal Science.

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