Using NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), an international scientific team has discovered that supernovae are capable of producing a substantial amount of the material from which planets like Earth can be formed.
"Our observations reveal a particular cloud produced by a supernova explosion 10,000 years ago contains enough dust to make 7,000 Earths," said Ryan Lau of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in a paper that appeared in the journal Science.
The research team used SOFIA to take detailed infrared images of an interstellar dust cloud known as Supernova Remnant Sagittarius A East, or SNR Sgr A East.
The team used SOFIA data to estimate the total mass of dust in the cloud from the intensity of its emission.
Astronomers already had evidence that a supernova's outward-moving shock wave can produce significant amounts of dust.
These results also reveal the possibility that the vast amount of dust observed in distant young galaxies may have been made by supernova explosions of early massive stars, as no other known mechanism could have produced nearly as much dust.
SOFIA is a heavily modified Boeing 747 jetliner that carries a telescope with an effective diameter of 2.5 metres at altitudes of 12 to 14 km.
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