Let There Be Dust

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Science  02 Sep 2011:
Vol. 333, Issue 6047, pp. 1227-1228
DOI: 10.1126/science.1208381

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Most of the ordinary matter in the universe is hydrogen and helium. In galaxies such as ours, heavier elements make up only about 1% of the mass, and about half of this is tied up in small particles, termed dust grains, that range in size from a nanometer to a fraction of a micrometer. Interstellar dust contains an appreciable fraction of the carbon and most of the refractory elements, such as magnesium, silicon, and iron. Because these particles are comparable in size to the wavelength of light, they are very effective at absorbing it. As a result, the Milky Way is much fainter in the night sky than it would otherwise be. This absorbed light is reradiated, but because the dust in the interstellar medium is so cold—about 20° above absolute zero—it is radiated at very long wavelengths, at around 200 µm. Such radiation can be observed only from space, and the European Space Agency's Herschel Space Observatory was designed to do just that. On page 1258 of this issue, Matsuura et al. (1) present Herschel observations showing that substantial amounts of dust are created in the aftermath of a supernova, the titanic explosion that terminates the life of a massive star.