Cosmic dust

Cosmic dust (extraterrestrial dust or space dust) is dust which exists in outer space, or has fallen on Earth. Most cosmic dust particles measure between a few molecules and 0.1 mm (100 micrometers). Larger particles are called meteoroids. Cosmic dust can be further distinguished by its astronomical location: intergalactic dust, interstellar dust, interplanetary dust (such as in the zodiacal cloud) and circumplanetary dust (such as in a planetary ring).

Cosmic dust contains some complex organic compounds (amorphous organic solids with a mixed aromatic–aliphatic structure) that could be created naturally, and rapidly, by stars. A smaller fraction of dust in space is “stardust” consisting of larger refractory minerals that condensed as matter left by stars.

Stardust grains (presolar grains by meteoriticists) are contained within meteorites, from which they are extracted in terrestrial laboratories. Stardust was a component of the dust in the interstellar medium before its incorporation into meteorites. The meteorites have stored those stardust grains ever since the meteorites first assembled within the planetary accretion disk more than four billion years ago. So-called carbonaceous chondrites are especially fertile reservoirs of stardust. Each stardust grain existed before the Earth was formed.

In the Solar System, interplanetary dust causes the zodiacal light. Solar System dust includes comet dust, asteroidal dust, dust from the Kuiper belt, and interstellar dust passing through the Solar System. Thousands of tons of cosmic dust are estimated to reach the Earth’s surface every year.

Most dust in the Solar System is highly processed dust, recycled from the material out of which the Solar System formed and subsequently collected in the planetesimals, and leftover solid material such as comets and asteroids, and reformed in each of those bodies’ collisional lifetimes. During the Solar System’s formation history, the most abundant element was (and still is) H2. The metallic elements: magnesium, silicon, and iron, which are the principal ingredients of rocky planets, condensed into solids at the highest temperatures of the planetary disk.

Cosmic dust can be detected by indirect methods that utilize the radiative properties of the cosmic dust particles. Cosmic dust can also be detected directly (‘in-situ’) using a variety of collection methods and from a variety of collection locations. Estimates of the daily influx of extraterrestrial material entering the Earth’s atmosphere range between 5 and 300 tonnes.

The large grains in interstellar space are probably complex, with refractory cores that condensed within stellar outflows topped by layers acquired during incursions into cold dense interstellar clouds. That cyclic process of growth and destruction outside of the clouds has been modeled to demonstrate that the cores live much longer than the average lifetime of dust mass. Those cores mostly start with silicate particles condensing in the atmospheres of cool, oxygen-rich red-giants and carbon grains condensing in the atmospheres of cool carbon stars.

NASA collects samples of star dust particles in the Earth’s atmosphere using plate collectors under the wings of stratospheric-flying airplanes. Dust samples are also collected from surface deposits on the large Earth ice-masses (Antarctica and Greenland/the Arctic) and in deep-sea sediments.

Interstellar dust particles were collected by the Stardust spacecraft and samples were returned to Earth in 2006.

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