Aug 20, 2019 | Updated: 11:45 AM EDT

Striking It Rich in Supernovae Dust at the Center of the Milky Way Galaxy

Mar 19, 2015 06:00 PM EDT

Dust Factory
(Photo : NASA/Cornell)

It's a tough job sifting through the data and the haze of the center of the Milky Way galaxy, but some astronomers have to do it. The time-consuming job often means having to peer into the center with aid of multiple telescopes, all giving you a different perspective at a different wavelength. It can be job of countless hours, with little to no reward, but when researchers find even cosmic dust, their studies can strike it rich.

In a new study published today in the journal Science Express, researchers with Cornell University have made the first direct discovery of dust used to build the cosmos at the center of the Milky Way, which they believe may have resulted from an ancient supernova.

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

Utilizing an infrared telescope aboard a modified Boeing 747, the researchers were able to make their key observations, and by creating a false color image, they were able to reveal the dust around Sagittarius A East-an ancient supernova remnant. Though relatively "new", Sagittarius A East, a 10,000-year-old supernova remnant at the center of our Milky Way, has likely been providing the galaxy with the building material that it needs to continue to grow, Lau says. 

"Currently, no space-based telescope can observe at far-infrared wavelengths, and ground-based telescopes are unable to observe light at these wavelengths due to the Earth's atmosphere" spokespersons with Cornell University say. So in order to make their observations the researchers had to think outside of the traditional box. Joining in on the joint project by NASA, the German Aerospace Center and the Universities Space Research Association, the researchers were able to make use of a modified Boeing 747 and the equipment onboard to make their observations. The astronomers captured the event via FORCAST (the Faint Object Infrared Camera Telescope) about the modified vessel known as SOFIA (the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy).

One of astronomy's largest questions to date is why galaxies contain so much dust, comprised primarily of silicon, iron and carbon. But with the researchers' new discovery a long-held belief reveals itself true that perhaps the remnants of supernovae, stars that explode at the end of their lives, provide the dust that continue to allow galaxies to grow.

"That is theoretical" Lau says. "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."

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