Astronomers, using the James Webb Space Telescope, have observed two Type II supernovae, uncovering large quantities of dust.
The James Webb Space Telescope spots dust deposits in two supernovae, but why is this such a big deal?
Astronomers using the renowned James Webb Space Telescope have made significant strides towards unveiling the dust origins in ancient galaxies. The observation of two Type II supernovae, namely Supernova 2004et (SN 2004et) and Supernova 2017eaw (SN 2017eaw), revealed extensive amounts of dust within their ejecta. The scientists’ mass calculated supports the theory that supernovae played a crucial role in bequeathing dust to the early universe.
Webb spots dust deposits in two supernovae
Dust, the universe’s essential building block for entities like planets, has long perplexed astronomers. When dust from dying stars permeates space, it carries vital elements that contribute to the birth of subsequent stars and their accompanying planets. The primary source of this celestial dust has remained a conundrum for decades, with supernovae — the explosive end of dying stars — hypothesized as key contributors.
Substantiating Supernovae’s Role
“Before now, direct evidence for this process was scarce, our abilities only stretching to examining the dust population in one relatively nearby supernova, Supernova 1987A, located 170,000 light-years away,” explained lead author Melissa Shahbandeh, affiliated with Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. “Detecting dust at mid-infrared wavelengths is only feasible if the gas cools enough to form dust and sufficient sensitivity is available.”
For more distant supernovae like SN 2004et and SN 2017eaw, located in NGC 6946, approximately 22 million light-years away, the necessary combination of wavelength coverage and sensitivity is uniquely accessible through Webb’s MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument).
A Breakthrough in Dust Production Research
The latest observations with Webb’s MIRI represent a significant leap in understanding dust production from supernovae. This breakthrough comes after nearly a decade since the discovery of newly formed dust in SN 1987A with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope.
The research produced surprising results beyond the mere detection of dust. The quantity of dust detected in the early stages of the supernova’s life was particularly striking. In SN 2004et, the researchers found over 5,000 Earth masses of dust.
James Webb: Unexpected Dust Detection Results
Ori Fox, the program lead from the Space Telescope Science Institute, added, “When we examine the quantity of dust in SN 2004et, it rivals measurements in SN 1987A, despite its relatively youthful age. It’s the highest dust mass detected in supernovae since SN 1987A.”
Survival of Dust After Supernova Explosion
Observations show that young, distant galaxies brim with dust, yet these galaxies aren’t old enough for intermediate mass stars, like our Sun, to have supplied this dust. More massive, short-lived stars could have expired quickly and abundantly enough to create this volume of dust.
While it’s known that supernovae produce dust, a question has lingered regarding the dust’s survival following the shockwaves generated in the explosion aftermath. The extensive dust found in SN 2004et and SN 2017eaw at their current life stages suggests that dust can endure these shockwaves, further reinforcing the role of supernovae as crucial cosmic dust factories.
Potential Underestimation of Dust Mass
The researchers pointed out that their current mass estimations may merely scratch the surface. While Webb has enabled the measurement of cooler dust than ever before, there could be undetected, even colder dust that radiates farther into the electromagnetic spectrum, remaining concealed by the outermost dust layers.
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