Scientists are beginning to realize just how important a single grain of dust can be, at least when it is space dust. Up until now, space dust has been considered nothing more than a nuisance, something that got in the way of what they wanted to explore. But recently that pesky dust has begun to give the scientists new opportunities because the dust emits radiation as a consequence of the dust being heated up by the nearby stars.
They are now able to study the space dust by using new instruments to observe the dust as well as new computer software. By studying the radiation from the dust, astronomers will be able to reconstruct what made the dust in the first place, and the dust itself plays a roll in forming new stars.
A recent workshop that was funded by the European Science Foundation (ESF)’s Exploratory Workshop has laid the ground work for advances in the study of the space dust. The biggest breakthrough so far is the ability to detect the dust at a much higher resolution from its infrared radiation. They were first able to accomplish this back in the 1980’s, but not at anywhere near the way they can with the new instruments.
They also have new computer models that are making it possible to look beyond the dust and make out the exact structure of the galaxy that is hiding behind it, even though it is not possible to observe it directly. The key element that makes it possible is that the dust behaves like a relay for the radiation that comes from the stars behind it. The high energy radiation that the dust absorbs from the stars heats up the dust and then the dust emits the radiation in the infra red waveband, which the scientists can now detect because of the new instrument.
The European Space Agency is going to launch a new infrared space telescope named Herschel that will be able to detect the infrared radiation that is being sent out by distant space dust.
The astronomers hope that they will be able to learn more about the roll that space dust plays in the formation of stars. They already know that there is a connection between the space dust and the gas that forms the stars. But the exact details of the connection are unknown, and that will require the scientists to gather knowledge about the dust itself, namely its molecular structure and lifecycle.
The workshop focused on spiral galaxies simply because they are the ones that are most heavily obscured by dust. Galaxies are divided up into three distinct categories, spiral, elliptical and irregular. There is less dust in elliptical galaxies, with irregular one are more difficult to explore because they do not have any structure. Spiral galaxies are the best choice because their geometry is a relatively simple one.
They have only begun the study of the space dust and what they will find about the past of the development of the stars as well as how the dust will form new stars will be the subject of text books in the not too distant future.
Source: European Space Foundation: http://www.esf.org/