NASA scientists say using a one-of-a-kind "oven" to recreate the extreme conditions found around a star nearing its death has allowed them to create samples of alien dust in a laboratory.
The researchers in California at the space agency's Ames Research Center succeeded in reproducing processes occurring in the atmosphere around a type of star known as a red giant that leads to the formation of interstellar dust out of which planets can ultimately form.
As a red giant is approaching the end of its life, it begins violently casting off its outer layers, ejecting massive amounts of dusty material into space.
After a life cycle of millions of years, the dust can lead to planetary formation and act as a key component in the evolution of the universe, the researchers say.
Scientists have long wanted to know the mechanisms behind the production of the tiny grains of dust, but attempts to artificially create such dust have been unsuccessful -- until now.
The Ames scientists designed and built an instrument called the Cosmic Simulation Chamber, a low-pressure chamber than can simulate the environment in deep space, creating extreme levels of vacuum and temperatures of minus 270 degrees Fahrenheit.
The visible and ultraviolet radiation emanating from surrounding stars can also be simulated, the scientists said.
The result is an accurate simulation of stellar envelopes, interstellar clouds and even planetary atmospheres that allow researchers to artificially create interstellar and planetary materials.
In the alien dust experiment, tiny hydrocarbon molecules introduced into the chamber were expanded in a cold jet spray of argon gas then exposed to electric discharges at high energy levels.
The researchers claimed they were able to form individual solid grains of dust that could be imaged with an electron microscope.
"The harsh conditions of space are extremely difficult to reproduce in the laboratory, and have long hindered efforts to interpret and analyze observations from space," Ames researcher Farid Salama said. "Using the COSmIC simulator we can now discover clues to questions about the composition and the evolution of the universe, both major objectives of NASA's space research program."
"Today, we are celebrating a major milestone in our understanding of the formation and the nature of cosmic dust grains that bears important implications in this new era of exoplanets discoveries," he said.