The presence of dust particles in the cosmic environment is a key factor in the formation of many astrophysical objects, including planets, moons, and comets. In addition, cosmic dust particles are some of nature’s most powerful detectors of electric and magnetic fields throughout the universe. For example, cosmic dust particles close to the center of the Milky Way’s massive black hole are charged and align perpendicularly to the galaxy’s magnetic field lines. Detection of light emitted from these dust grains is used by astronomers to map the properties of the magnetic field, helping to understand the fundamental forces holding our galaxy together.
Streamlines showing magnetic fields layered over a color image of the dusty ring around the Milky Way's massive black hole. The streamlines reveal that the magnetic field closely follows the shape of the dusty structure. Galactic Center dust and magnetic fields: NASA/SOFIA, star field image: NASA/Hubble Space Telescope.
Another challenging topic in cosmic dust research is understanding the interaction between dust particles and the solar wind on the surface of airless (or thin-atmosphere) bodies, which is key for establishing human settlements on both the Moon and Mars. Researchers at CASPER are currently exploring both of these topics using an integrated numerical / experimental approach to examine these cosmic dust phenomena.