Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Herschel Helps Solve Mystery of Cosmic Dust Origins

Herschel Helps Solve Mystery of Cosmic Dust Origins - NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

New observations from the infrared Herschel Space Observatory reveal that an exploding star expelled the equivalent of between 160,000 and 230,000 Earth masses of fresh dust. This enormous quantity suggests that exploding stars, called supernovae, are the answer to the long-standing puzzle of what supplied our early universe with dust.

"This discovery illustrates the power of tackling a problem in astronomy with different wavelengths of light," said Paul Goldsmith, the NASA Herschel project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., who is not a part of the current study. "Herschel's eye for longer-wavelength infrared light has given us new tools for addressing a profound cosmic mystery."

Herschel is led by the European Space Agency with important contributions from NASA.

Cosmic dust is made of various elements, such as carbon, oxygen, iron and other atoms heavier than hydrogen and helium. It is the stuff of which planets and people are made, and it is essential for star formation. Stars like our sun churn out flecks of dust as they age, spawning new generations of stars and their orbiting planets.