Herschel Detects a Massive Dust Reservoir in Supernova 1987A


Figure 1 : A Herschel 250 micron and Spitzer 8 and 24 micron composite image of supernova 1987A and the surrounding regions. The SN is indicated by two horizontal lines.

The vast majority of the atoms in the universe are either hydrogen or helium, but the heavier elements - such as oxygen, nitrogen and carbon - are essential for the formation of planets, atmospheres, and life.  It has long been known that these heavy elements can be formed in catastrophic stellar explosions known as supernovae.

Supernovae are very rare, and the closest to recorded in the last 300 years was detected in 1987, in a small galaxy close to the Milky Way.  Using the European Space Agency's new telescope, the Herschel Space Observatory, UCL astronomers have now detected about 200,000 Earth masses of dust which has condensed out of the remains of the star which exploded.  The dust grains contain the heavy elements which are so important for life, and the observations show that supernovae can be efficient dust-forming factories.

The paper, by M. Matsuura et al., is in the September 2nd 2011 issue of the journal Science.  The abstract is available from here and a reprint is available at this link.

Page last modified on 18 dec 13 17:09 by Amira K F Val Baker