Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Dusty Blog Post

Dust, it's everywhere! From the Earth-based perspective, dust is that layer of film made up of dirt, mostly biological, that settles on things in the corners of your room, or floating in the air reflecting light. On a cosmological scale, dust is made up of a huge variety of materials, literally just about everything in the Universe. And once cosmic dust settles, it forms stars and galaxies.


Cosmic dust also has a pretty large range in size, from just a few molecules up to a couple microns (µm). There really is no upper limit, but after a certain point, things obviously start to become asteroids and comets and meteoroids and such. There is a proposed definition for a meteoroid of being between 100 µm and 10 m across. That would then classify dust any smaller then 100 µm, and starting on a molecular level. Human hair is usually around 100 µm thick.

Cosmic dust can further be distinguished by it's location.


Intergalactic Dust Bunnies Around NGC 1316. Hubble.

Intergalactic dust is the dust between galaxies in intergalactic space. Intergalactic dust can be free floating, but are also known to exist in clouds around galaxies, the Milky Way has at least four located nearby. The clouds are so diffuse that it would be hard to tell that you were in it though. Their grains may also be large, some would say that even mountain, or even continent or planet, sized objects could be considered dust on the large intergalactic scales. Because of the large variations in distribution, intergalactic dust may also affect measurements of quasars and supernova.

Interstellar dust is the dust between stars within a galaxy. Again, these can block light and distort images for astronomers. The materials that make up these clouds can come from galaxy formation, or from dying stars. The big thing about interstellar dust is that, along with gas, it forms into molecular clouds. Molecular clouds can collapse and form stars and planetary disks, which leads to the next form of dust. Our own solar system was created out of a molecular cloud, rich in heavy elements, seeded by the death of other stars.

NASA Artist Interpretation of Proto-Planetary Disk
Interplanetary dust is the dust between the planets in a stellar system (our solar system in this case). As a molecular cloud collapses, all sorts of materials are crunched together. This forms what is called a proto-planetary disk around a star. Out of this disk, dust grains collide and collect and build themselves up larger and larger, eventually we get all the large objects in the solar system: planets, dwarf planets, comets, asteroids, and meteoroids. Not everything makes it into this crunch and ends up hanging out in the solar system. This is how we can also study presolar dust grains.

But also, new dust is generated in our solar system. This comes from the collision of larger bodies, as well as grains falling off of comets and forming their tails. There have been a couple missions to collect and study comet dust, which are EPOXI and Stardust-NExT.

Zodiacal Light. ESO.

From our Earth, we can also see something called zodiacal light. This is the back scattering of sunlight on cosmic dust particles in our solar system. Conditions to see this light are hard to come by, as it is even fainter then the Milky Way.
Saturn Eclipse, as seen from Cassini.

Finally, we get to circumplanetary dust. This is the dust that orbits around planets and form planetary rings. All of the gas giants of the solar system have planetary rings, Saturn's being the most spectacular. They form from dust particles being captured by the planet from the proto-planetary disk, but to close to the planet to coalesce into moons. The stability of these rings are debated, and it may be that they will eventually dissipate or be absorbed in their planets.


So, I hoped you learned a lot about cosmic dust. It exists all over the Universe and is very important in how things work. When I first learned about it, I kind of rolled my eyes. Who would believe someone would devote their entire career to studying dust? But it turns out it is one of the most fascinating topics about our Universe.

EDIT: Also, I'd like that thank the birthday wishes from my previous post. Today (March 24) happens to be my birthday. 25, in case you are wondering.


37 comments:

THUNDERCAT832 said...

This is in response to the voting pole on what I would like for you to write. I love the way you research things and how you write so I would love your take on 2012. Ya know, the whole calendar thing ;)

Lost.in.Idaho said...

I'm allergic to dust. Maybe I shouldn't invest in space travel...

Jay.CA said...

amazing info on dust of all things...

Aaron M. Gipson said...

Excellent post as always, my brilliant friend. That old song by Kansas, "Dust in the Wind" is now playing in the background of my synapses. Sorry about my absence lately, but I'm catching up!

Ender said...

never knew there was so much dust in space...

Astronomy Pirate said...

Ok, TC, I'll keep that in mind, I'll have it on poll next time.

Gajewa469 said...

Well, I learned something today!

Electric Addict said...

i didn't realize dust was so interesting

Necroticism said...

Yep, the space is dusty ^^

AnthropoSeptic said...

The scale necessary to call some of this dust is mind bending.

Grafted said...

Wow, dust is very pretty, apparently

Erika said...

I don't think I've ever given dust so much thought in my entire life. I'll never be the same again....

Happy birthday btw!!

Zakk said...

The universe is so amazing!

Every Day said...

wow. amazing insight on dust. thanks for sharing.

Alan said...

I never new dust was so amazing.

kgp318 said...

Wonderful pictures and information! Most importantly Happy Birthday! Off on a field trip I go...

Alphabeta said...

Happy Birthday.

To be cliche about it, Earth is just a speck of dust.

Merlyy said...

Very intersting read =)

Thanks

ScottD said...

If you have never seen the nasa shuttle video of the experiment on how dust particles attract in 0g to form larger objects, you must see it. google it. MIND=BLOWN

mac-and-me said...

amazing pics

akrater said...

intergalactic dust clouds, sounds interesting :o

Melanie said...

Great post - cosmic dust is way cooler than regular dust that is all over my house!

Robert Fünf said...

I absolutely love all the photos you post.

Chuck said...

Happy Birthday! I turn 25 this summer, feeling old!

Glad I suggested cosmic dust into your poll I really enjoyed reading about the different types and their properties. Lovin it :)

seamagpie said...

very interesting post, the universe is truly beyond comprehension.

Tweeks Coffee said...

great post. looking forward to reading your next one

Alex said...

It's like what scientists always say, "You learn something new every day."
HPD BTW!

G said...

everyday is a school day here

Cody said...

Never thought dust could be so interesting, great post.

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Zombie said...

Theres a crap load of dust just chillin on my laptop screen, should probably clean it up...

Theo Lichter said...

great info, nice read, followed

Venus said...

cosmic dust is so amazing to me. to thing that stuff is floating around in space and from it planets are formed...

Raw said...

What an awesome post, dust is everything.

Life Hacks said...

Amazing read man. So many different types of dust.

Josh said...

Awesome explanation. You made the concept really accessible.

HiFi said...

Wow, very nice photo.

Christophe said...

1. Cosmic dust makes epic pictures.
2. It's trippy to think we came from that little tiny particle.

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