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Ancient 'Dusty' Supernova Helping to Solve Age-Old Puzzle

Mar 20, 2015 05:43 PM EDT
Sagittarius A East
Pictured: In this false color image, contour lines reveal the dusty area of Sagittarius A East - an ancient supernova remnant.
(Photo : NASA/Cornell)

Scientists have recently detected remnants of an ancient "dusty" supernova in the center of our own Milky Way galaxy, and it's helping to solve an age-old puzzle, according to a new study.

"Dust itself is very important because it's the stuff that forms stars and planets, like the Sun and Earth, respectively, so to know where it comes from is an important question," lead author Ryan Lau from Cornell University said in a statement. "Our work strongly reinforces the theory that supernovae are producing the dust seen in galaxies of the early Universe."

Galaxies in the Universe have been forming as recently as one billion years after the Big Bang. And for decades, astronomers have been wondering why they contain so much dust.

According to popular theory, supernovae - or stars that explode when they die - contain large amounts of metal-enriched material that, in turn, harbors key ingredients of dust, like silicon, iron and carbon. However, the environment of these explosions is so hostile, that scientists believed the dust to be destroyed in the process.

That is, until Lau and his colleagues started studying Sagittarius A East, a 10,000-year-old supernova remnant near the center of our galaxy.

"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," the researcher said.

They used an infrared telescope called FORCAST (the Faint Object Infrared Camera Telescope) aboard a modified Boeing 747 (SOPHIA) to observe cosmic building-block dust resulting from an ancient supernova in the center of the Milky Way.

Previous research had indicated that cosmic dust could not survive supernovas - as seen in observations of remnants from the famed SN1987A and Cassiopeia A. But now it appears that may not be the case, providing unique insight into possibly how the first galaxies in the Universe came to be.

The results are described further in the journal Science.

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