Interstellar dust may hold clues to the magical origin of life on Earth

Who knew studying dust could tell us more about our origins?
Amal Jos Chacko
Artist’s impression of how asymptotic giant branch stars exert pressure on solid matter.
Artist’s impression of how asymptotic giant branch stars exert pressure on solid matter.

Miyata, Tachibana, et al. 

Interstellar dust, despite the name suggests, is not particles lying in space that glisten in the light, waiting to be swept up by a space vacuum cleaner. These are tiny solid particles floating in space, made up of carbon, silicates, ice, and other metals. A byproduct of interstellar evolution, these can lead to the formation of cosmic bodies such as planets.

A recent press release from the University of Tokyo, Japan, discusses strides achieved in learning more about Interstellar dust. 

Asymptotic giant branch (AGB) stars, stars in the late stages of their lives, are known producers of interstellar dust and shine light that varies widely. 

New findings from older data

Doctoral student Kengo Tachibana from the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Astronomy and his team have analyzed the variable intensity of dusty AGBs to coincide with variations in dust produced. 

This is particularly significant, as further exploration down this avenue could give us better insights into our origins. 

Before the famous James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) took to the skies, infrared space telescopes AKARI- meaning light in Japanese- and WISE (Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer) surveyed the cosmos. Although these ceased operation over five years now, the depth of information they collected was so large that astronomers are still examining them and reaching new observations.

“We study stars, and IR light from them is a key source of information that helps us unlock their secrets,” said Tachibana. “Until recently, most IR data was from very short-period surveys due to the lack of advanced dedicated platforms. But missions like AKARI and WISE have allowed us to take longer-period surveys of things. This means we can see how things might change over greater time periods and what these changes might imply. Lately, we turned our attention to a certain class of star known as asymptotic giant branch stars, which are interesting because they are the main producers of interstellar dust,” he added. 

Interstellar dust may hold clues to the magical origin of life on Earth
Artist’s impression of an asymptotic giant branch star.

Tachibana further talks about where research needs to focus next. “Our latest study has pointed us in the right direction. We have found that light from dusty AGBs varies with periods longer than several hundred days, thanks to long-period IR observations. We also found that the spherical shells of dust produced by and then ejected by these stars have concentrations of dust that vary in step with the stars’ changes in luminosity. Of the 169 dusty AGBs surveyed, no matter their variability period, the concentrations of dust around them would coincide. So we’re certain these are connected”.

The team now aims to investigate the physical mechanisms behind the production of cosmic dust and hopes that the completion of the University of Tokyo Atacama Observatory- the university’s sizeable ground-based telescope project in Chile- will aid in reaching more meaningful discoveries.

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