Scientists Are Creating Star Dust In A Lab To Help Explain How Earth Was Formed

By Gabrielle Jonas on January 14, 2014 2:29 PM EST

Scientists Hope to Capture the Magic and Science of Star-Making
Cosmic dust swirls in interstellar space to form an incipient star. An ambitious European project will have astrophysicists and engineers concocting their own stardust. (Photo: NASA)

Astrophysicists, quantum chemists, and engineers in Spain and France will design and build three machines that will spew interstellar dust grains like those that make up the outer layers of stars, the Spanish daily newspaper, El Mundo reported Monday. And because those same interstellar grains also form planets, the star-concocters are confident that the resulting info will allow us to better understand how our own planet was formed. The project, dubbed, "Nanocosmos," will cost 15 million Euros, and is funded by The European Research Council. It will "have a huge impact on our current view of the universe," said project co-leader Dr. José Cernicharo Quintanilla, profesor de Investigación del CSIC en el Centro de Astrobiología in Madrid, on the Centro de Astrobiologia'website.

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Data gleaned from the six-year project should "resolve some of the mysteries about how nanoparticles [particles in size ranging from 10-9 constitute interstellar dust grains," said project co-leader, Dr. José ángel Martín Gago, research professor at the Institute of Materials Science of Madrid (ICMM), according to a translation of the ICMM website. Gago hopes to uncover "what are the fundamental processes that give rise to the chemical complexity that formed both Earth and what's found in space." After millions of years, the grains that form around dying stars — especially supernova — churn in new interstellar clouds, giving rise to yet another round of stars and planets.

Checking the Ingredients

To better emulate what's out there, Nanocosmos will get an assist from the radio astronomical observations of The Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array (ALMA), situated atop the Chajnantor plateau. Its readings of the molecular composition and chemical processes of the dust grains surrounding dying stars will provide the blueprint that the star-makers will need. Before concocting their own star-stuff, the nanocosmos-naughts, "will completely characterize the gas composition and physical conditions that lead to the formation of the cores of dust grains and their subsequent growth by accretion of molecules," Gago said.

Once the Nanocosmos scientists have begun producing interstellar dust grains, they'll use simulation chambers, spectroscopy and other advanced materials science techniques to pore over the resulting powder samples. "The project will help us understand the cosmic origin and chemical composition of the dust grains formed in both stars and in supernova ejecta," Quintanilla said. "These grains are similar to those which have led to the formation of rocky planets such as Earth."

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