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The supernova stardust factory – caught on camera by UK scientists

Image of supernova remnant N49, taken at infrared wavelengths

17 February 2014

Above: Image of supernova remnant N49, in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Taken at infra-red wavelengths, this shows iron (green), atomic hydrogen (blue) and molecular hydrogen (red).

Scroll down to meet the student from Serbia who took these great steps for science… as part of her PhD!

The death of a star can mean the birth of a galaxy – and UK scientists have proven it by taking the first ever pictures of a recent supernova, or exploding star, creating its own ‘space dust’.

Scientists from Keele University, in Staffordshire, and University College London worked as part of an international team to snap the incredible shots of Supernova 1987A, which is about 160,000 light years away from the Earth, acting as a ‘dust factory’.

Dust is crucial for planets, new stars, organic compounds and even life itself to form in the universe.

Dust can be created in a number of ways, but the scientists say these pictures strongly suggest that in the early universe, a lot of dust came from supernovae.

Dr Jacco van Loon, a lecturer in Physics and Astrophysics at Keele University, was part of the team working with the European Southern Observatory’s Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA) telescope.

’It was very difficult to observe supernovae and the infra-red radiation from dust with earlier telescopes, because the earth’s atmosphere is opaque,’ he said. ‘The ALMA gives a much clearer picture and clearly shows that the formation of the dust is coming from the supernova itself.

‘Dust clouds act as a shelter so matter in them can cool more quickly, which is essential for stars to form in a galaxy.

‘Atoms can collect more quickly around a particle of dust than they can around a gas, which means organic molecules can form.

‘Rocky planets also need dust to form – it’s key to the formation of our home.’

Older pictures only showed hot dust, but these images show cold dust too – and so much of it that astronomers estimate its mass at around 25% that of the Sun.

Meet the student: Maša Lakićević, from Belgrade, Serbia

Maša, 32, wanted to carry on her study of supernova remnants after completing her Master’s dissertation on the subject at the University of Belgrade. She got in touch with Dr Van Loon, and before long was embarking on a PhD that would make her part of a project that is changing the way astronomers look at the universe.

‘I always wanted to see the world, and astrophysics is one of the rare professions in which students are sent on observation trips all over the world. I’ve worked with telescopes in Chile and Australia and worked for two years in Germany, along with my two years in the UK, and have been to three conferences in Europe. 

‘I picked Keele partly because of my current supervisor Dr Van Loon. He was researching into my area of interest and suggested my PhD title: The Evolution of Supernova Remnants and their Impact on Galactic Evolution.

‘For me, Keele is a good place to study science. It has a very international environment, and it’s peaceful, safe, not too crowded, so one can work a lot, but also quite a friendly and open place with various activities and comfortable student life.

‘Becoming a scientist and a real observer was my childhood dream come true. Space is inspiring for all sorts of people for many reasons and the job of astronomer is exciting because we have our own small contribution to the human understanding of the universe. The most exciting thing about the research is being able to discover something new and being the first person who knows it.

‘I would like to carry on working in the UK after my PhD as a postdoctoral fellow – in astrophysics, of course. I will apply for jobs soon and then will see if I have some chance to continue my life as a scientist.’

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