10,000 years ago, a supernova explosion created a cloud that has enough cosmic dust to make 7,000 Earths.
An international research team made the discovery using NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). The researchers snapped detailed infrared images of an interstellar dust cloud known as Supernova Remnant Sagittarius A East, also called SNR Sgr A East.
Astronomers have seen evidence that a supernova’s explosion can produce a lot of cosmic dust. But, could this cosmic dust hold together when subsequent shock waves hit?
“The dust survived the later onslaught of shock waves from the supernova explosion, and is now flowing into the interstellar medium where it can become part of the ‘seed material’ for new stars and planets,” said Ryan Lau, who led the research team.
The new findings could also mean the incredible quantities of dust we see in distant galaxies may have been made by supernova explosions similar to this one. Scientists don’t know of any other mechanism that could create that much dust. At least, not yet.
“This discovery is a special feather in the cap for SOFIA, demonstrating how observations made within our own Milky Way galaxy can bear directly on our understanding of the evolution of galaxies billions of light years away,” said Pamela Marcum, a SOFIA project scientist at Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.
Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA)
SOFIA isn’t your typical telescope. It sits aboard a modified Boeing 747. Modifications include a large door in the fuselage that opens up to give the 2.5 meter reflecting telescope a look at the sky.
The telescope is designed around infrared astronomy. So, why on a Boeing 747? SOFIA starts its observations around 41,000 feet. At this altitude, the telescope is above nearly all the water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere. Water vapor blocks some infrared wavelengths from reaching the ground. At the 747’s cruising altitude, 85% of the full infrared range is available.
The SOFIA telescope also holds the record for the largest telescope ever placed inside a plane.
SOFIA is a joint project between NASA and the German Aerospace Center.
Image credits: NASA. Top image is from a separate supernova remnant