Supernovae make raw material for planets

SN 1987A

Observations with the Herschel Space Observatory show that supernova 1987A produced enough dust to make 200,000 new planets.

THE HERSCHEL SPACE OBSERVATORY has discovered that titanic stellar explosions can be excellent dust factories. In space, the dust mixes with gas to become the raw material for new stars, planets and, ultimately, life. This discovery may solve a mystery of the early Universe.

The discovery was made while Herschel was charting emission from cold dust in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small galaxy near to the Milky Way. It is the perfect observatory for the job because cold dust radiates far-infrared light, the wavelengths Herschel is designed to detect.

Herschel saw a spot of light at the location of supernova 1987A, an exploding star first seen from Earth in February 1987, and the closest known supernova in the past 400 years.

Astronomers have been studying the remains of the explosion as its blast wave expands into its surroundings.

Planet factories

Herschel’s images are the first clear-cut far-infrared observations of SN1987A. They reveal cold dust grains at about -250 degrees C, which nevertheless emit more than 200 times the Sun’s energy.

“The supernova remnant was much brighter at infrared wavelengths than we were expecting,” says Mikako Matsuura, University College London, who is the lead author on the scientific paper detailing these results.

The remnant’s brightness was used to estimate the amount of dust. Surprisingly, there turned out to be about a thousand times more dust than astronomers had thought a supernova was capable of producing—enough to make 200,000 planets the size of Earth.

Artist's impression of the Herschel Space Observatory.

Artist's impression of the Herschel Space Observatory.

The origin of dust in the Universe is of great interest. The dust’s heavy atoms like carbon, silicon, oxygen and iron were not produced in the Big Bang and must have formed later.

Although they are only a minor part of the Universe and our Solar System, they are the main constituents of rocky planets like Earth and thus of life itself—many of the atoms we are made of were once part of the dust in the Universe.

Dust factories

However, it is not fully understood where this dust comes from, and especially where it came from in the young Universe. But scientists now have a clue.

The many old red giant stars in today’s Universe are thought to be the major dust producers, with the grains condensing like soot in a chimney as warm gases flow away from the star.

However, there were no such stars in the early Universe—yet we know there was already dust.

Now Herschel has shown that supernovae can produce enormous amounts of dust. The astronomers speculate that the dust condenses from the gaseous debris as it expands from the explosion and cools.

Since there were plenty of supernovae in the young Universe, this could help to explain the origin of dust seen at those times.

Adapted from information issued by ESA. Images courtesy ESA / C. Carreau / P. Challis (CfA).

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