Dust factory in a dead star

   
   
24 Feb 2009 14:44:00.000

Interstellar space dust from a dead star identified by a research team led by The University of Nottingham could unlock some of the mysteries of the early universe.

Dr Loretta Dunne and her team have found new evidence of huge dust production in the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant, the remains of a star that exploded about 300 years ago. The paper is set to be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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Dr Loretta Dunne and her team have found new evidence of huge dust production in the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant, the remains of a star that exploded about 300 years ago. The paper is set to be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

 

Interstellar dust is found throughout the cosmos. It is responsible for the dark patches seen in the Milky Way on a moonless night. It consists of carbon and silicate particles, about the size of those in cigarette smoke. The dust helps stars like the Sun to form and subsequently coagulates to form planets like Earth and the cores of giant gas planets like Jupiter. It is found in huge quantities in galaxies, even very early in the history of the universe.

 

But the origin of all this dust is a mystery. Does it condense like snowflakes in the winds of red giant stars or is it produced in supernovae — the violent death-throes of massive stars? Supernovae are an efficient way of producing dust in a blink of the cosmic eye, as massive stars evolve relatively quickly, taking a few million years to reach their supernova stage. In contrast lower-mass stars like our Sun take billions of years to reach their dust-forming red giant phase. Despite many decades of research, astronomers have still not found conclusive evidence that supernovae can produce dust in the quantities required to account for the dust they see in the early universe.

 

Using the SCUBA polarimeter on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii, the scientists searched for a signal from dust grains spinning in the strong magnetic field of the supernova remnant. If the dust grains are slightly elongated (like little cigars) they tend to line up the same way and produce a polarised signal. When the polarimeter detector is rotated, the strength of the signal changes — much the same as if you look at the sky with polaroid sunglasses, held at different angles.

 

The polarisation signal from the supernova dust is the strongest ever measured anywhere in the Milky Way, marking it out as unusual. It emits more radiation per gram than regular interstellar dust and the alignment of the grains must be very orderly to produce such highly polarised emission.

 

“It is like nothing we’ve ever seen” said Dr Dunne, who is based in the Centre for Astronomy and Particle Physics at The University of Nottingham. “It could be that the extreme conditions inside the supernova remnant are responsible for the strong polarised signal, or it could be that the dust grains themselves are highly unusual”

 

Team member Professor Rob Ivison of the UK Astronomy Technology Centre at the Institute for Astronomy, University of Edinburgh comments further. “It could be that the material we're seeing is in the form of iron needles — exotic, slender, metallic whiskers. If these grains are distributed throughout the Universe they may be re-radiating microwaves.  This has major consequences for our understanding of the cosmic microwave background — one of the most important building blocks of the Big Bang model of our Universe”.

 

Alternatively, the grains could be a more pristine version of the dust found elsewhere in the Galaxy, the same composition but able to produce more radiation due to the nuances of its 3-D structure. A final verdict requires further observations using the Herschel Space Observatory, to be launched this year by the European Space Agency.

 

— Ends —

 

Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 100 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and Times Higher (THE) World University Rankings.

 

More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to RAE 2008, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranks the University 7th in the UK by research power. In 27 subject areas, the University features in the UK Top Ten, with 14 of those in the Top Five.

 

The University provides innovative and top quality teaching, undertakes world-changing research, and attracts talented staff and students from 150 nations. Described by The Times as Britain's "only truly global university", it has invested continuously in award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. Twice since 2003 its research and teaching academics have won Nobel Prizes. The University has won the Queen's Award for Enterprise in both 2006 (International Trade) and 2007 (Innovation — School of Pharmacy), and was named ‘Entrepreneurial University of the Year’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2008.

 

IMAGES AND CAPTIONS

 

Images of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A and the signal from the associated dust can be found at http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/~ppzld/casA.html

 

THE JAMES CLERK MAXWELL TELESCOPE

 

The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope is operated by the Joint Astronomy Centre, on behalf of the UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, and the National Research Council of Canada.

 

THE ROYAL ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY

 

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

Story credits

Dr Loretta Dunne on +44 (0)115 951 5132, +44 (0)7968 250834, loretta.dunne@nottingham.ac.uk or Professor Rob Ivision, University of Edinburgh, +44(0)131 668 8361, +44 (0)7764 145817, rji@roe.ac.uk
Tara De Cozar

Tara De Cozar - Internal Communications Manager

Email: tara.decozar@nottingham.ac.uk Phone: +44 (0)115 846 8560 Location: University Park

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