Space dust is tough enough to survive supernova aftermath

Star-seeding soot lingers long after explosion’s reverse shock waves, astronomers discover

supernova dust

STUBBORN DUST  A patch of dust (outlined in white) sits near the center of supernova remnant Sagittarius A East. The dust has survived both the explosion (reddish orange) and its reverse shock wave (blue).

Lau et al/Science 2015; SOFIA, PACS, Chandra, VLA

Dust still lingers in the leftovers of a supernova that exploded thousands of years ago. Its existence demonstrates that the material can survive the reverse shock waves of stellar explosions, researchers report online March 19 in Science.

Ryan Lau of Cornell University and fellow astronomers found the lingering dust in Sagittarius A East, a remnant of a supernova 26,000 light-years away that exploded (from an Earth-based viewpoint) 10,000 years ago.

Past observations have shown that the initial explosive shock wave of a supernova can create dust (SN: 2/8/14, p. 7; SN Online 7/9/14). What has been unclear, however, is whether supernova dust can survive reverse shock waves, which occur roughly 1,000 years after a stellar explosion.

Based on infrared images,Lau and colleagues estimate that 10 to 20 percent of the initial dust made in supernova Sagittarius A East survived the reverse shock wave of the explosion. A similar amount of dust — and possibly more — may have survived supernovas in the early universe. That dust provided the raw materials for bursts of star and planet formation to begin billions of years ago, Lau says.

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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