Jun 16, 2019 | Updated: 11:54 AM EDT

Supernovae Dust ‘Goldmine’ Found at the Center of the Milky Way

Mar 22, 2015 02:15 PM EDT

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Looking up at the cosmos, one might wonder what it all is. What's that constellation just above the horizon? What's that planet shining blue in the distance? But when  you're an astronomer, you know the answers, and your questions are far more complex than that. It may be a tough job trying to sort through answers that appear in a haze and are Millenia old, but in order to find the origins of our galaxy or any other someone's got to sort through the evidence.

One of the largest questions to date has been what building materials were present at the formation of our Milky Way galaxy? Astronomers have long theorized that the building material may have come from the death of supermassive stars, however, the galaxy-building dust is thought to burn up in a supernova like that. But now researchers are saying that may not be the case at all. In a new study published this week 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, and they believe it 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 questions" 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).

Still, many questions remain for the researchers. While they were able to discern the dust amongst the haze, its origins are theoretical at best, and their investigation will seek similar answers at the heart of other galaxies.

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