This Is What A Speck Of Space Dust Actually Looks Like

Using a specialized facility at the Ames research center, NASA scientists have successfully recreated the cosmic grains that permeate the galaxy and form all planets. Perhaps surprisingly, star-stuff is actually quite complicated.

To do so, the scientists used a facility called the Cosmic Simulation Chamber (COSmIC) to simulate the physical processes that occur in the atmospheres of red giant stars — processes that eventually lead to the formation of space dust. By virtue of the experiment, the researchers have come to realize that the universe's building blocks are far more complex than previously thought.

"The harsh conditions of space are extremely difficult to reproduce in the laboratory, and have long hindered efforts to interpret and analyze observations from space," noted Farid Salama, project leader and a space science researcher at Ames in a statement. "Using the COSmIC simulator we can now discover clues to questions about the composition and the evolution of the universe, both major objectives of NASA's space research program."

COSmIC allowed the scientists to recreate and visualize the formation of the carbon grains that reside in the envelope of stars. It's helping them understand more about the formation, structure, and size distribution of stellar dust grains.

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"During COSmIC experiments, we are able to form and detect nanoparticles on the order of 10 nm size, grains ranging from 100-500 nanometers and aggregates of grains up to 1.5 micrometers in diameter, about a tenth the width of a human hair, and observe their structure with SEM, thus sampling a large size distribution of the grains produced," said Ella Sciamma-O'Brien, of the BAER Institute and a research fellow at Ames.

These results have important implications and ramifications not only for interstellar astrophysics, but also for planetary science. For example, they can provide new clues on the type of grains present in the dust around stars. That in turn, will help us understand the formation of planets, including Earth-like planets. They also will help interpret astronomical data from the Herschel Space Observatory, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) and the ground-based Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array observatory in Chile.

[ NASA ]

Images: NASA/Ames/Farid Salama