What is Cosmic Dust?

The movement of cosmic dust reveals information about the formation of planets, stars and galaxies.

Cosmic dust is a substance found throughout the universe. It consists of small grains of material and aggregates of these grains, with a composition that can vary radically, depending on the circumstances in which the powder is formed. This dust often has a crystalline structure and several interesting properties that have attracted the attention of astronomers and other researchers working in space, including theoretical chemists, physicists and mathematicians.

Saturn has a large collection of circumplanetary dust.

This substance was originally considered nothing more than a nuisance. Cosmic dust clouds can obscure stars, planets and other sights of interest in space, and astronomers have struggled for centuries to filter it out so they can make clear observations of various objects in the sky. Eventually, researchers began to take an interest in this extremely abundant substance and realized that it actually plays a vital role in many of the processes in the universe, including the formation of stars and planets.

Cosmic dust has a number of interesting properties that have attracted the attention of chemists.

There are several different types of cosmic dust. Circumplanetary dust, for example, orbits a planet in a distinctive ring shape; Saturn has a large collection of circumplanetary dust. Interplanetary dust can be found within specific solar systems, scattered across asteroid belts and orbiting the system’s star, for example. Interstellar dust spans vast distances between the stars of a galaxy, sometimes concentrating in nebulae, while intergalactic dust can be found between galaxies.

Cosmic dust clouds can obscure stars, planets and other sights of interest in space.

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Cosmic dust particles vary widely in size. Most require magnification to see, with samples being taken from things like asteroids and meteors, as well as specialized spacecraft collectors for further study. Because it is also the basic medium from which everything in the universe is made, it could be argued that technically everything from a computer keyboard to human beings is made of this dust. Most scientists prefer to study dust of extraterrestrial origin, however.

Simple telescopes might be powerful enough to observe cosmic dust.

Cosmic dust studies can reveal interesting information about how galaxies, individual stars and planets form and ultimately destroy themselves. Some researchers have also realized that dust can actually be quite beautiful, as swirling images of nebulae have revealed. Observations can be carried out with a variety of tools, from simple telescopes to detectors that capture radioactive emissions from dust.

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