NASA discovers supernova-surviving cosmic dust

Cosmic dust is created as red giant stars die and their material disperses into interstellar clouds. Supernova explosions, which are considered some of the brightest, most powerful forces in the universe, are known to destroy these dust particles with their blast wave, with the current theory being that regions of space are left empty following a supernova blast. However, NASA's SOFIA telescope has observed the opposite to be true in the case of a 1987 supernova blast, with 10 times more dust present than expected.

Astronomers have spent the last 30 years studying Supernova 1987A, a nearby explosion first discovered in 1987 that's considered one of the brightest such blasts in 400 years. With the expectation being that the region should mostly — if not completely — free of cosmic dust, scientists have been surprised to discover the material in abundance, suggesting that dust might be formed in the wake of a supernova's blast wave.

This research could lead to answers about why so much cosmic dust exists in our galaxy. Pre-explosion, Supernova 1987A had a set of distinctive rings, with dust that is believed to have been destroyed following the blast. But the recent SOFIA observations reveal that dust is growing in population, either by re-forming or growing from remaining particles.

"The dust detected by SOFIA could result from either significant growth of the existing dust particles or the formation of a new dust population. These new observations compel astronomers to consider the possibility that the post-blast environment might be ready to form or re-form dust immediately after the blast wave passes," writes NASA.

Essentially a flying observatory, SOFIA is a modified Boeing 747SP outfitted with a 106-inch diameter telescope. Jointly operated by NASA and Germany's DLR Aerospace Center, SOFIA is better suited to study cosmic dust, which acts as the building blocks for planets and stars, by flying above the Earth's atmosphere. Ground-based telescopes are unable to detect dust particles using the infrared spectrum due to absorption from water and carbon dioxide.