Peering into a cosmic dust factory has revealed two new star molecules

11 Jul 2017

An artist’s illustration of Supernova 1987A. Image: A Angelich; NRAO/AUI/NSF

By peering into a ‘cosmic dust factory’, researchers have found a treasure trove of star-building molecules, including two new ones.

In an effort to figure out the exact science of star formation, a team of researchers from Cardiff University have stared into a cosmic dust factory formed from the remnants of supernovae.

Using the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA), the team analysed Supernova 1987A in unprecedented detail, resulting in the discovery of a wealth of molecules formed in the centre of an exploded star.

The supernova’s name originates from its discovery 30 years ago, 163,000 light years away from Earth. Until the advent of ALMA, its innermost core had remained a mystery.

Most excitingly for the team led by Dr Mikako Matsuura, two of the molecules discovered were brand new to science: formylium (HCO+) and sulphur monoxide (SO).

Joining these molecules were previously detected compounds such as carbon monoxide and silicon oxide (SiO), with estimates that about one in 1,000 silicon atoms from the exploded star can be found in SiO molecules, while only a few out of every million carbon atoms are in HCO+ molecules.

This ruled out previous scientific thinking that the massive explosions of supernovae would completely destroy any molecules and dust that may have been found within them.

3D model created as well

Crucially, the discovery draws comparisons with star nurseries as it suggests that the explosive death of a star could lead to clouds of molecules and dust developing at extremely cold temperatures.

“What is most surprising is that this factory of rich molecules is usually found in conditions where stars are born. The deaths of massive stars may therefore lead to the birth of a new generation,” Matsuura said.

In an accompanying paper, another research team used ALMA to create the most detailed 3D model of Supernova 1987A, allowing astronomers to analyse it like never before.

This marks another breakthrough in our understanding of star formation, which remains somewhat limited.

Last month, the Hubble Space Telescope snapped some of the brightest galaxies in the observable universe at the peak of their star formation, in order to add another piece to an age-old puzzle.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic