Study and importance
Artist’s impression of dust formation around a supernova explosion.
Cosmic dust was once solely an annoyance to astronomers, as it obscures objects they wish to observe. When infrared astronomy began, the dust particles were observed to be significant and vital components of astrophysical processes. Their analysis can reveal information about phenomena like the formation of the Solar System. For example, cosmic dust can drive the mass loss when a star is nearing the end of its life, play a part in the early stages of star formation, and form planets. In the Solar System, dust plays a major role in the zodiacal light, Saturn's B Ring spokes, the outer diffuse planetary rings at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, and comets.
The study of dust is a largely researched topic that brings together different scientific fields: physics (solid-state, electromagnetic theory, surface physics, statistical physics, thermal physics), fractal mathematics, chemistry (chemical reactions on grain surfaces), meteoritics, as well as every branch of astronomy and astrophysics. These disparate research areas can be linked by the following theme: the cosmic dust particles evolve cyclically; chemically, physically and dynamically. The evolution of dust traces out paths in which the Universe recycles material, in processes analogous to the daily recycling steps with which many people are familiar: production, storage, processing, collection, consumption, and discarding. Observations and measurements of cosmic dust in different regions provide an important insight into the Universe's recycling processes; in the clouds of the diffuse interstellar medium, in molecular clouds, in the circumstellar dust of young stellar objects, and in planetary systems such as the Solar System, where astronomers consider dust as in its most recycled state. The astronomers accumulate observational ‘snapshots’ of dust at different stages of its life and, over time, form a more complete movie of the Universe's complicated recycling steps.
Parameters such as the particle's initial motion, material properties, intervening plasma and magnetic field determined the dust particle's arrival at the dust detector. Slightly changing any of these parameters can give significantly different dust dynamical behavior. Therefore, one can learn about where that object came from, and what is (in) the intervening medium.