How cosmic dust is created has been a mystery for some time. Although the textbooks tell us that the dusty stuff that builds the planets - and, ultimately, the complex chemistry that forms life (we are, after all, made of ‘star stuff') - comes from supernova explosions, astronomers have been puzzled as to how delicate grains of dust condense from stellar material and how they can possibly survive the violent shock waves of the cataclysmic booms.
But now, with the help of a powerful ground-based telescope, astronomers have not only watched one of these supernova ‘dust factories' in action, they've also discovered how the grains can withstand the violent supernova shock.
ANALYSIS: Dust Bunnies Discovered Around 'Dirty' Supernova
"The problem has been that even though dust grains composed of heavy elements would form in supernovae, the supernova explosion is so violent that the grains of dust may not survive," said co-investigator Jens Hjorth, of the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen. "But cosmic grains of significant size do exist, so the mystery has been how they are formed and have survived the subsequent shockwaves."