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Dust Production

Dust Production from Reservoirs in Two Supernovae

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has been helping scientists make giant strides in understanding where all that cosmic dust production in early galaxies from.

Dust Production img 2
Images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope reveal large amounts of dust within Supernova 2004et and Supernova 2017eaw. These supernovae are located in spiral galaxy NGC 6946, 22 million light-years away from Earth. The hexagonal shape of SN 2004et in Webb’s image is an artifact of the telescope’s mirror and struts — when the bright light of a point source is observed, the light interacts with the sharp edges of the telescope, creating diffraction spikes. In these images, blue, green, and red were assigned to Webb’s MIRI data at 10; 11.3, 12.8, and 15.0; and 18 and 21 microns (F1000W; F1130, F1280W, and F1500; and F1800W and F2100W, respectively). Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, Ori Fox (STScI), Melissa Shahbandeh (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

Exploring Supernovae and dust production

They’ve been closely watching two major star explosions, Supernova 2004et (SN 2004et) and Supernova 2017eaw (SN 2017eaw). What’s exciting is that they came to know about a lot of dust production within the remnants of these explosions. This discovery supports the idea that these massive star explosions, or supernovae, could have been the main dust-makers in the young universe.

You might think dust is trivial, but it’s a massive deal in the cosmos, especially for creating planets. When a star goes kaput, the dust production by it into space carries the raw materials needed to birth new stars and planets. For years, astronomers have been scratching their heads over where all this dust originates.

Supernovae could be the big reveal in this cosmic mystery. When a star on its last legs goes boom, it releases a gas that spreads and cools down, resulting in dust production.

“We’ve known this was a possibility, but we didn’t have much hard proof,”

says Melissa Shahbandeh from Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.

“We’ve been able to study the dust from just one supernova that’s pretty close to us, Supernova 1987A, which is 170,000 light-years away. When the gas from these explosions cools enough for dust production, you can only spot it with sensitive equipment and at certain wavelengths.”

Revealing far-off Supernovae

But what about supernovae that are farther off, like SN 2004et and SN 2017eaw, located in a galaxy called NGC 6946, some 22 million light-years away? The answer lies in Webb’s MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument). It’s the only powerful tool to capture a wide range of wavelengths with high sensitivity for these distant supernovae.

image of NGC 6946
This image of NGC 6946 highlighting two supernovae, SN 2004et and SN 2017eaw, by Webb’s MIRI (Mid-Infrared Camera), shows compass arrows, scale bar, and color key for reference.The north and east compass arrows show the orientation of the image on the sky. The scale bar is labeled 2,600 light-years.This image shows invisible mid-infrared wavelengths of light that have been translated into visible-light colors. The color key shows which MIRI filters were used when collecting the light. The color of each filter name is the visible light color used to represent the infrared light that passes through that filter.In these images, blue, green, and red were assigned to Webb’s MIRI data at 10; 11.3, 12.8, and 15.0; and 18 and 21 microns (F1000W; F1130W, F1280W, and F1500W; and F1800W and F2100W, respectively). Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, Ori Fox (STScI), Melissa Shahbandeh (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope found new dust in SN 1987A about ten years ago. But the images from Webb mark the first significant leap in understanding how supernovae create dust. And boy, did they find dust and lots of it! Researchers discovered over 5,000 Earth masses worth of dust in SN 2004et.

“We’re seeing dust volumes in SN 2004et comparable to what we saw in SN 1987A, even though it’s way younger,”

explains program leader Ori Fox from the Space Telescope Science Institute.

“It’s the largest dust haul we’ve discovered in a supernova since SN 1987A.”

Astronomers have spotted young galaxies filled with dust, yet they are too young for medium-sized stars like our Sun to have this much dust production as they aged. This suggests that bigger, shorter-lived stars could have created so much dust by dying off rapidly and in large numbers.

Dust production in SN 2004et

We know that supernovae is responsible for dust production, but scientists needed to determine if the dust could withstand the shock waves produced within the star following the explosion. The substantial amount of dust spotted in SN 2004et and SN 2017eaw implies that the dust can survive the violent blast, confirming that supernovae are critical players in dust production.

Observatory of NGC 6496
This image from the Kitt Peak National Observatory of NGC 6496 contextualizes the locations of Supernova 2004et and Supernova 2017eaw within the galaxy. Scientists using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument) found large amounts of dust within two Type II supernovae, Supernova 2004et (SN 2004et) and Supernova 2017eaw (SN 2017eaw), located 22 million light-years away from Earth in spiral galaxy NGC 6946. The large amounts of dust found in these supernovae using MIRI supports that supernovae played a key role in supplying dust to the early universe. Credits: KPNO, NSF’s NOIRLab, AURA, Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

The researchers also hinted that their current dust mass estimates might only be a glimpse of the whole picture. Thanks to Webb, they can now detect even colder dust. However, even harder dust might be hidden underneath the surface layers, which only gives off radiation at even further wavelengths.
The team emphasizes that these findings are just a sneak peek of what we can learn about supernovae and their progenitor stars by studying their dust production.

“People are getting super excited to find out what this dust can tell us about the heart of the star that exploded,”

Fox notes.

“Once they see our findings regarding dust production, I’m sure other scientists will develop new ideas for studying these dusty supernovae.”

The two supernovae, SN2004et and SN2017eaw, are the first pair of five this project studies. The observations were made as part of Webb General Observer program 2666, and the findings regarding dust production were published on July 5 in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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