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Interstellar Dust

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Interstellar Dust

"Space dust" redirects here. For other uses, see Space dust (disambiguation).
For the jazz band, see Cosmic Dust (band).

Cosmic dust can be taken to be all dust in the cosmos, as its name implies, or limited to space dust in our solar system, as scientists who study dust in the solar system prefer. It is for the most part a type of small dust particles which are a few molecules to 0.1 µm in size. A smaller fraction of all dust in space consists of larger refractory minerals that condensed as matter left the stars. It is called "stardust" and is included in a separate section below. Cosmic dust can be further distinguished by its astronomical location: intergalactic dust, interstellar dust, interplanetary dust (such as in the zodiacal cloud) and circumplanetary dust (such as in a planetary ring). In our own Solar System, interplanetary dust causes the zodiacal light. Sources of solar system dust include comet dust, asteroidal dust, dust from the Kuiper belt, and interstellar dust passing through our solar system. The terminology has no specific application for describing materials found on the planet Earth except for dust that has demonstrably fallen to earth. In October 2011, scientists reported that cosmic dust contains complex organic matter ("amorphous organic solids with a mixed aromatic-aliphatic structure") that could be created naturally, and rapidly, by stars.[1][2][3]

Study and importance

Cosmic dust was once solely an annoyance to astronomers, as it obscures objects they wish to observe. When infrared astronomy began, those previously annoying dust particles were observed to be significant and vital components of astrophysical processes.

For example, cosmic dust can drive the mass loss when a star is nearing the end of its life, play a part in the early stages of star formation, and form planets. In our own solar system, dust plays a major role in the zodiacal light, Saturn's B Ring spokes, the outer diffuse planetary rings at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, and comets.

The study of dust is a many-faceted research topic that brings together different scientific fields: physics (solid-state, electromagnetic theory, surface physics, statistical physics, thermal physics), fractal mathematics, chemistry (chemical reactions on grain surfaces), meteoritics, as well as every branch of astronomy and astrophysics.[4] These disparate research areas can be linked by the following theme: the cosmic dust particles evolve cyclically; chemically, physically and dynamically. The evolution of dust traces out paths in which the universe recycles material, in processes analogous to the daily recycling steps with which many people are familiar: production, storage, processing, collection, consumption, and discarding. Observations and measurements of cosmic dust in different regions provide an important insight into the universe's recycling processes; in the clouds of the diffuse interstellar medium, in molecular clouds, in the circumstellar dust of young stellar objects, and in planetary systems such as our own solar system, where astronomers consider dust as in its most recycled state. The astronomers accumulate observational ‘snapshots’ of dust at different stages of its life and, over time, form a more complete movie of the universe's complicated recycling steps.

The detection of cosmic dust points to another facet of cosmic dust research: dust acting as photons. Once cosmic dust is detected, the scientific problem to be solved is an inverse problem to determine what processes brought that encoded photon-like object (dust) to the detector. Parameters such as the particle's initial motion, material properties, intervening plasma and magnetic field determined the dust particle's arrival at the dust detector. Slightly changing any of these parameters can give significantly different dust dynamical behavior. Therefore one can learn about where that object came from, and what is (in) the intervening medium.

Detection methods

Cosmic dust can be detected by indirect methods utilizing the radiative properties of cosmic dust.

Cosmic dust can also be detected directly ('in-situ') using a variety of collection methods and from a variety of collection locations. Estimates of the daily influx of extraterrestrial material entering the Earth's atmosphere range between 5 and 300 tonnes.[5][6] The Earth-falling dust particles are collected in the Earth's atmosphere using plate collectors under the wings of stratospheric-flying NASA airplanes and collected from surface deposits on the large Earth ice-masses (Antarctica and Greenland/the Arctic) and in deep-sea sediments. Don Brownlee at the University of Washington in Seattle first reliably identified the extraterrestrial nature of collected dust particles in the later 1970s. Another source is the meteorites, which contain stardust extracted from them (see below). Stardust grains are solid refractory pieces of individual presolar stars. They are recognized by their extreme isotopic compositions, which can only be isotopic compositions within evolved stars, prior to any mixing with the interstellar medium. These grains condensed from the stellar matter as it cooled while leaving the star.

In interplanetary space, dust detectors on planetary spacecraft have been built and flown, some are presently flying, and more are presently being built to fly. The large orbital velocities of dust particles in interplanetary space (typically 10–40 km/s) make intact particle capture problematic. Instead, in-situ dust detectors are generally devised to measure parameters associated with the high-velocity impact of dust particles on the instrument, and then derive physical properties of the particles (usually mass and velocity) through laboratory calibration (i.e. impacting accelerated particles with known properties onto a laboratory replica of the dust detector). Over the years dust detectors have measured, among others, the impact light flash, acoustic signal and impact ionisation. Recently the dust instrument on Stardust captured particles intact in low-density aerogel.

Dust detectors in the past flew on the HEOS-2, Helios, Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Giotto, and Galileo space missions, on the Earth-orbiting LDEF, EURECA, and Gorid satellites, and some scientists have utilized the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft as giant Langmuir probes to directly sample the cosmic dust. Presently dust detectors are flying on the Ulysses, Cassini, Proba, Rosetta, Stardust, and the New Horizons spacecraft. The collected dust at Earth or collected further in space and returned by sample-return space missions is then analyzed by dust scientists in their respective laboratories all over the world. One large storage facility for cosmic dust exists at the NASA Houston JSC.

Infrared light can penetrate the cosmic dust clouds, allowing us to peer into regions of star formation and the centers of galaxies. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope is the largest infrared telescope ever launched into space. The Spitzer Space Telescope (formerly SIRTF, the Space Infrared Telescope Facility) was launched into space by a Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida on 25 August 2003. During its mission, Spitzer will obtain images and spectra by detecting the infrared energy, or heat, radiated by objects in space between wavelengths of 3 and 180 micrometres. Most of this infrared radiation is blocked by the Earth's atmosphere and cannot be observed from the ground. The findings from the Spitzer already revitalized the studies of cosmic dust. A recent report from a Spitzer team shows some evidence that cosmic dust is formed near a supermassive black hole.[7]

Radiative properties of cosmic dust

A dust particle interacts with electromagnetic radiation in a way that depends on its cross section, the wavelength of the electromagnetic radiation, and on the nature of the grain: its refractive index, size, etc. The radiation process for an individual grain is called its emissivity, dependent on the grain's efficiency factor. Furthermore, we have to specify whether the emissivity process is extinction, scattering, absorption, or polarisation. In the radiation emission curves, several important signatures identify the composition of the emitting or absorbing dust particles.

Dust particles can scatter light nonuniformly. Forward-scattered light means that light is redirected slightly by diffraction off its path from the star/sunlight, and back-scattered light is reflected light.

The scattering and extinction ("dimming") of the radiation gives useful information about the dust grain sizes. For example, if the object(s) in one's data is many times brighter in forward-scattered visible light than in back-scattered visible light, then we know that a significant fraction of the particles are about a micrometer in diameter.

The scattering of light from dust grains in long exposure visible photographs is quite noticeable in reflection nebulae, and gives clues about the individual particle's light-scattering properties. In X-ray wavelengths, many scientists are investigating the scattering of X-rays by interstellar dust, and some have suggested that astronomical X-ray sources would possess diffuse haloes, due to the dust.[9]


Main article: Presolar grains

Stardust grains (also called presolar grains by meteoriticists) are contained within meteorites, from which they are extracted in terrestrial laboratories. The meteorites have stored those stardust grains ever since the meteorites first assembled within the planetary accretion disk more than four billion years ago. So-called carbonaceous chondrites are especially fertile reservoirs of stardust. Each stardust grain existed before the earth was formed. Stardust is a scientific term; not just a poetic one, referring to refractory dust grains that condensed from cooling ejected gases from individual presolar stars and mixed into the cloud from which the solar system condensed.

Many different types of stardust have been identified by laboratory measurements of the highly unusual isotopic composition of the chemical elements that comprise each stardust grain. These refractory mineral grains may earlier have been coated with volatile compounds, but those are lost in the dissolving of meteorite matter in acids, leaving only insoluble refractory minerals. Finding the grain cores without dissolving most of the meteorite has been possible, but difficult and labor intensive (see presolar grains).

Many new aspects of nucleosynthesis have been discovered from the isotopic ratios within the stardust grains.[10] An important property of stardust is the hard, refractory, high-temperature nature of the grains. Prominent are silicon carbide, graphite, aluminium oxide, aluminium spinel, and other such grains that would condense at high temperature from a cooling gas, such as in stellar winds or in the decompression of the inside of a supernova. They differ greatly from the solids formed at low temperature within the interstellar medium.

Also important are their extreme isotopic compositions, which are expected to exist nowhere in the interstellar medium. This also suggests that the stardust condensed from the gases of individual stars before the isotopes could be diluted by mixing with the interstellar medium. These allow the source stars to be identified. For example, the heavy elements within the SiC grains are almost pure S-process isotopes, fitting their condensation within AGB star red giant winds inasmuch as the AGB stars are the main source of S-process nucleosynthesis and have atmospheres observed by astronomers to be highly enriched in dredged-up s process elements. Another dramatic example comes from the supernova condensates, usually shortened by acronym to SUNOCON (from SUperNOva CONdensate[11]) to distinguish them from other stardust condensed within stellar atmospheres. SUNOCONs contain in their calcium an excessively large abundance[12] of 44Ca, demonstrating that they condensed containing abundant radioactive 44Ti, which has a 65 year half-life. It was thus still alive when the SUNOCON condensed within the expanding supernova interior but would have been extinct after the time required for mixing with the interstellar gas. Its discovery proved the prediction[13] from 1975 to identify SUNOCONs in this way. But SiC SUNOCONs are only about 1% as numerous as are SiC stardust from AGB stars.

Stardust is but a modest fraction of the condensed cosmic dust, forming less than 0.1% of the mass of total interstellar solids. The high interest in stardust derives from new information that it has brought to the sciences of stellar evolution and nucleosynthesis.

A fascinating aspect to human culture is the study within terrestrial laboratories of solids that existed before the earth existed.[14] This was once thought impossible, especially in the decades when cosmochemists were confident that the solar system began as a hot gas virtually devoid of any remaining solids, which would have been vaporized by high temperature. The very existence of stardust shows that this historic picture was incorrect.

Some bulk properties of cosmic dust

Cosmic dust is made of dust grains and aggregates of dust grains. These particles are irregularly-shaped with porosity ranging from fluffy to compact. The composition, size, and other properties depends on where the dust is found, and conversely, a compositional analysis of a dust particle can reveal much about the dust particle's origin. General diffuse interstellar medium dust, dust grains in dense clouds, planetary rings dust, and circumstellar dust, are each different in their characteristics. For example, grains in dense clouds have acquired a mantle of ice and on average are larger than dust particles in the diffuse interstellar medium. Interplanetary dust particles (IDPs) are generally larger still.

Most of the influx of extraterrestrial matter that falls onto the Earth is dominated by meteoroids with diameters in the range 50 to 500 micrometers, of average density 2.0 g/cm³ (with porosity about 40%). The densities of most IDPs captured in the Earth's stratosphere range between 1 and 3 g/cm³, with an average density at about 2.0 g/cm³.[15]

Other specific dust properties:

Dust grain formation

The large grains in interstellar space are probably complex, with refractory cores that condensed within stellar outflows topped by layers acquired subsequently during incursions into cold dense interstellar clouds. That cyclic process of growth and destruction outside of the clouds has been modeled [16] to demonstrate that the cores live much longer than the average lifetime of dust mass. Those cores mostly start with silicate particles condensing in the atmospheres of cool oxygen rich red-giant stars and carbon grains condensing in the atmospheres of cool carbon stars. The red-giant stars have evolved off the main sequence and have entered the giant phase of their evolution and are the major source of refractory dust grain cores in galaxies. Those refractory cores are also called Stardust (section above), which is a scientific term for the small fraction of cosmic dust that condensed thermally within stellar gases as they were ejected from the stars. Several percent of refractory grain cores have condensed within expanding interiors of supernovae, a type of cosmic decompression chamber. And meteoriticists that study this refractory stardust extracted from meteorites often call it presolar grains, although the refractory stardust that they study is actually only a small fraction of all presolar dust. Stardust condenses within the stars via considerably different condensation chemistry than that of the bulk of cosmic dust, which accretes cold onto preexisting dust in dark molecular clouds of the galaxy. Those molecular clouds are very cold, typically less than 50K, so that ices of many kinds may accrete onto grains, perhaps to be destroyed later. Finally, when the solar system formed, interstellar dust grains were further modified by chemical reactions within the planetary accretion disk. So the history of the complex grains in the early solar system is complicated and only partially understood.

Astronomers know that the dust is formed in the envelopes of late-evolved stars from specific observational signatures. In infrared light, emission at 9.7 micrometres is a signature of silicate dust in cool evolved oxygen-rich giant stars. Emission at 11.5 micrometres indicates the presence of silicon carbide dust in cool evolved carbon-rich giant stars. These help provide evidence that the small silicate particles in space came from the ejected outer envelopes of these stars.[17][18]

Conditions in interstellar space are generally not suitable for the formation of silicate cores. This would take excessive time to accomplish, even if it might be possible. The arguments are that: given an observed typical grain diameter a, the time for a grain to attain a, and given the temperature of interstellar gas, it would take considerably longer than the age of the universe for interstellar grains to form.[19] On the other hand, grains are seen to have recently formed in the vicinity of nearby stars, in nova and supernova ejecta, and in R Coronae Borealis variable stars which seem to eject discrete clouds containing both gas and dust. So mass loss from stars is unquestionably where the refractory cores of grains formed.

Most dust in our solar system is highly processed dust, recycled from the material out of which our solar system formed and subsequently collected in the planetesimals, and leftover solid material such as comets and asteroids, and reformed in each of those bodies' collisional lifetimes. During our solar system's formation history, the most abundant element was (and still is) H2. The metallic elements: magnesium, silicon, and iron, which are the principal ingredients of rocky planets, condensed into solids at the highest temperatures of the planetary disk. Some molecules such as CO, N2, NH3, and free oxygen, existed in a gas phase. Some molecules, for example, graphite (C) and SiC would condense into solid grains in the planetary disk; but carbon and SiC grains found in meteorites are presolar based on their isotopic compositions, rather than from the planetary disk formation. Some molecules also formed complex organic compounds and some molecules formed frozen ice mantles, of which either could coat the "refractory" (Mg, Si, Fe) grain cores. Stardust once more provides an exception to the general trend, as it appears to be totally unprocessed since its thermal condensation within stars as refractory crystalline minerals. The condensation of graphite occurs within supernova interiors as they expand and cool, and do so even in gas containing more oxygen than carbon,[20] a surprising carbon chemistry made possible by the intense radioactive environment of supernovae. This special example of dust formation has merited specific review.[21]

Planetary disk formation of precursor molecules was determined, in large part, by the temperature of the solar nebula. Since the temperature of the solar nebula decreased with heliocentric distance, scientists can infer a dust grain's origin(s) with knowledge of the grain's materials. Some materials could only have been formed at high temperatures, while other grain materials could only have been formed at much lower temperatures. The materials in a single interplanetary dust particle often show that the grain elements formed in different locations and at different times in the solar nebula. Most of the matter present in the original solar nebula has since disappeared; drawn into the Sun, expelled into interstellar space, or reprocessed, for example, as part of the planets, asteroids or comets.

Due to their highly-processed nature, IDPs (interplanetary dust particles) are fine-grained mixtures of thousands to millions of mineral grains and amorphous components. We can picture an IDP as a "matrix" of material with embedded elements which were formed at different times and places in the solar nebula and before our solar nebula's formation. Examples of embedded elements in cosmic dust are GEMS, chondrules, and CAIs.

From the solar nebula to Earth

The arrows in the adjacent diagram show one possible path from a collected interplanetary dust particle back to the early stages of the solar nebula.

We can follow the trail to the right in the diagram to the IDPs that contain the most volatile and primitive elements. The trail takes us first from interplanetary dust particles to chondritic interplanetary dust particles. Planetary scientists classify chondritic IDPs in terms of their diminishing degree of oxidation so that they fall into three major groups: the carbonaneous, the ordinary, and the enstatite chondrites. As the name implies, the carbonaceous chondrites are rich in carbon, and many have anomalies in the isotopic abundances of H, C, N, and O (Jessberger, 2000). From the carbonaceous chondrites, we follow the trail to the most primitive materials. They are almost completely oxidized and contain the most low condensation temperature elements ("volatile" elements) and the largest amount of organic compounds. Therefore, dust particles with these elements are thought to be formed in the early life of our solar system. Why? The volatile elements have never seen temperatures above about 500 K, therefore, one can conclude that the IDP grain "matrix" consists of some very primitive solar system material. Such a scenario is true in the case of comet dust.[22] The provenance of the small fraction that is stardust (see above) is quite different; these refractory interstellar minerals thermally condense within stars, become a small component of interstellar matter, and therefore remain in the presolar planetary disk.

We can learn more about these particles' origin, by examining their surfaces. If we examine, in the laboratory, dust particles' density of solar flare tracks, their amorphous rims, and the spallogenic isotopes from cosmic rays (Flynn, 1996), then we have good clues for how long a particle has been traveling in space. Nuclear damage tracks are caused by the ion flux from solar flares. Solar wind ions impacting on the particle's surface produce amorphous radiation damaged rims on the particle's surface. And spallogenic nuclei are produced by galactic and solar cosmic rays. A dust particle that originates in the Kuiper Belt at 40 AU would have many more times the density of tracks, thicker amorphous rims and higher integrated doses than a dust particle originating in the main-asteroid belt.

Based on recent computer model studies, the complex organic molecules necessary for life may have formed in the protoplanetary disk of dust grains surrounding the Sun before the formation of the Earth.[23] According to the computer studies, this same process may also occur around other stars that acquire planets.[23] (Also see Extraterrestrial organic molecules.)

In September 2012, NASA scientists reported that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), subjected to interstellar medium (ISM) conditions, are transformed, through hydrogenation, oxygenation and hydroxylation, to more complex organics - "a step along the path toward amino acids and nucleotides, the raw materials of proteins and DNA, respectively".[24][25] Further, as a result of these transformations, the PAHs lose their spectroscopic signature which could be one of the reasons "for the lack of PAH detection in interstellar ice grains, particularly the outer regions of cold, dense clouds or the upper molecular layers of protoplanetary disks."[24][25]

Dust grain destruction

How are the interstellar grains destroyed? There are several ultraviolet processes which lead to grain "explosions" for tiny grains.[26][27] More prominent for interstellar dust grains is sputtering erosion when energetic atoms or ions pierce the surface of a solid to deposit enough energy to cause secondary ions to be ejected from the resulting internal explosion of fast ions. This causes total mass to be sputtered away with a mean lifetime M/(dM/dt)= 2-4x108 years.[28] Grain-grain collisions also influence the grain size distribution.[29] Stochastic models of such repeating cycles following intermittent reincorporation into molecular clouds to rebuild the overlying shell mass for the grains demonstrate that the refractory grain cores have a much longer mean lifetime against destruction that does the grain mass; viz for cores M/(dM/dt)= 3x109 years, about tenfold longer on average.[30] This survival mechanism explains how the refractory cores can live so long in the interstellar medium. The extreme isotopic compositions of the older cores endows them with a greater potential for cosmic chemical memory.[31] Dust grains incorporated into stars are also formed by complete evaporation, but only a relatively small fraction of the mass of a star-forming cloud actually ends up in stars. Therefore a typical grain core goes through many molecular clouds and has mantles added and later removed many times before the grain core is destroyed.[30]

Some "dusty" clouds in the universe

Our solar system has its own interplanetary dust cloud; extrasolar systems too.

There are different types of nebulae with different physical causes and processes. One might see these classifications:

Distinctions between those types of nebula are that different radiation processes are at work. For example, H II regions, like the Orion Nebula, where a lot of star-formation is taking place, are characterized as thermal emission nebulae. Supernova remnants, on the other hand, like the Crab Nebula, are characterized as nonthermal emission (synchrotron radiation).

Some of the better known dusty regions in the universe are the diffuse nebulae in the Messier catalog, for example: Messier Catalog

Some larger 'dusty' catalogs that you can access from the NSSDC, CDS, and perhaps other places are:

  • Sharpless (1959) A Catalogue of HII Regions
  • Lynds (1965) Catalogue of Bright Nebulae
  • Lunds (1962) Catalogue of Dark Nebulae
  • van den Bergh (1966) Catalogue of Reflection Nebulae
  • Green (1988) Rev. Reference Cat. of Galactic SNRs


  • The National Space Sciences Data Center (NSSDC)
  • CDS Online Catalogs


See also


Astronomy portal

Further reading


External links

  • Cosmic Dust Group
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