Boffins believe that supernovae can produce enough dusty material to make thousands of Earths.
An international team of scientists analysed the data from SOFIA – a NASA and German Aerospace Center's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy project – which had taken images of a dust cloud.
"This discovery is a special feather in the cap for SOFIA, demonstrating how observations made within our own Milky Way galaxy can bear directly on our understanding of the evolution of galaxies billions of light years away," said researcher Pamela Marcum.
The team took measurements at long infrared wavelengths of the Supernova Remnant Sagittarius A East – or the not-so-piffy-sounding SNR Sgr A East – to estimate the total mass of dust in the cloud based on the intensity of its emission.
SOFIA, a pimped-up Boeing 747 special performance jetliner loaded with a fancy-pants telescope, flies at altitudes of 39,000 to 45,000 feet to capture the images required by researchers back on the ground.
Astronomers already had evidence that a supernova’s outward-moving shock wave can produce significant amounts of dust.
Until now, a key question was whether the new soot- and sand-like dust particles would survive the subsequent inward “rebound” shock wave generated when the first, outward-moving shock wave collides with surrounding interstellar gas and dust.
Researcher Ryan Lau of New York's Cornell University led the team.
He explained: "The dust survived the later onslaught of shock waves from the supernova explosion, and is now flowing into the interstellar medium where it can become part of the 'seed material' for new stars and planets."
Supernova remnant dust spotted by SOFIA. Image Credit: NASA/CXO/Lau et al
The discovery allowed the boffins to float the idea that huge quantities of dust spotted in distant young galaxies may have been produced by supernova explosions of early massive stars.
The findings, which suggested a missing link between supernovae and planet formation, were published in Science magazine on 19 March. ®
Top image shows warm dust surviving inside a supernova remnant. Pic credit: NASA/CXO/Herschel/VLA/Lau et al