Queen’s Brian May makes new study of dust in space

Another one writes the dust! Queen musician Brian May has put down his guitar to carry out fresh research into the make-up of the Solar System. The rock star, who dazzled crowds at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics, has written a scientific paper about the distribution of dust between the planets.

Zodiacal light pictured from Paranal Chile
Zodiacal light pictured from the VLT site at Paranal, Chile. Credit: ESO

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He analysed spacecraft data in a bid to discover how much of the dust comes from comets, how much from colliding asteroids and how much from interstellar space.

Brian, who earned the title of doctor by investigating the same topic, linked up with his old PhD supervisor, Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson, of Imperial College, London, for the latest project.

The paper’s title – An improved model for the infrared emission from the zodiacal dust cloud: cometary, asteroidal and interstellar dust – is a lot less snappy than that of a Queen album.

But it has been accepted for publication in the prestigious journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society next month.

Brian May
Brian May. Credit: Paul Sutherland

The most obvious sign that sand-sized particles litter space comes from the meteors that blaze across the sky when they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. But from dark sites, they also reveal themselves as a conical glow before dawn and after sunset, called the Zodiacal Light, and caused by sunlight reflecting off the dust in deep space.

It is spread in the same plane, centred on the Ecliptic, along which all the planets more or less orbit the Sun. And in the inner Solar System, it is known to have a fan-like distribution, May and Rowan-Robinson note.

Their studies, using infrared observations of zodiacal dust by the IRAS and COBE space missions, says that comets account for 70 per cent of this fan of inner dust, assuming it spreads out as far as Mars. Asteroid collisions account for 22 per cent and most of the rest – 7.5 per cent – is of interstellar origin.

The authors call for more work to be done to study the zodiacal dust cloud, both from ground-based observatories and spacecraft, to help learn about its history in the evolution of the Solar System.

You can view the paper here on ArXiv.org.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.