What is Space Dust?


When we think of that which we’d want to see in space, we think of large celestial bodies that evoke the imagination with gorgeous colors and patterns that don’t exist here on Earth.  The last thing we think about is dust, although the reality is that space dust exists just as much as the dust that makes us have to clean our homes on a regular basis.  And, space dust, also known as cosmic dust, is completely unique, while even being beautiful.

#1: Space Dust is Mostly Made up of Rock, But Not Completely

Space dust isn’t anything like the dust that’s on your dresser’s surface, which is largely made up of dead skin and dander.  Instead, it’s the result of countless years of planets, asteroids, comets and other bodies that are made up primarily of rock.  This rock inevitably turns into tiny particles over years and years, being perpetuated within the gas between and surrounding stars.  Then, some space dust is made up of tiny particles of ice, where it’s too far from the sun to avoid crystallizing.

#2: Space Dust is Practically Inescapable

The thing about cosmic dust is that it’s everywhere in space, making it inescapable.  While the actual density and makeup of the dust can vary depending on where you’re traveling, it’s a significant part of space’s atmosphere.  It’s also accumulating over time, as it simply has nowhere to go.  In other words, there’s more space dust today than there ever was, and more space dust will accumulate as time goes on.  Fortunately, this poses no risk to our solar system.

#3: The Spread of Space Dust Depends on Its Size

Space dust can spread through magnetic forces and winds in space, just like the dust here on Earth.  But, its spread depends on its size, as smaller particles are more easily carried, and heavier ones may simply fall due to their weight over time.  Space dust doesn’t stay fixed in one location, as it’s constantly moving around space. 

#4: Space Dust Can Be Visible

Depending on the angle of the sun, space dust may actually put on quite a captivating show.  If it catches light at just the right angle, it appears to glimmer between space bodies, or even have a silhouette-like effect up close depending on the sun’s location. 

#5: Jupiter’s Rings are Made of Space Dust

A great example of the impressive nature of space dust is the fact that it makes up the rings of Jupiter.  Jupiter’s rings are made up of a particularly fine dust that is compacted enough to give the appearance of a single solid material.  The rings of Uranus and Venus contain a large amount of particularly sooty dust, as well.  By contract, Saturn’s rings are made of almost exclusively ice.  Some of the dust in these planets’ rings does get redistributed into the planet’s atmosphere, and some of it gets magnetically pulled away from the rings to find itself elsewhere in space.  Larger dust particles can even lead to the development of moons.

#6: Dust on the Moon May Be Harmful

Interestingly, the dust on the moon was found to be somewhat harmful during the Apollo mission.  Initially, the astronauts realized that this dust stuck to their clothing and was extremely hard to remove.  They also found that the dust was an irritant to the throat and lungs, and noted a unique gunpowder-like smell.  The dust of the moon even interfered with the Velcro and zippers on their clothes.  Later on, it was determined that moon dust has uniquely jagged edges, as there are no atmospheric factors to smooth them down over time.

#7: Mars is Known for its Dust Storms

The unique atmosphere of Mars is conducive to powerful dust storms which have been observed over the years, and offer an impressive visual display.  The storms can actually be so rough that they threaten nearby spacecraft.  This is something that NASA is considering as plans develop rapidly to bring humans to Mars.

#8: Cosmic Dust Enters Earth

Last but not least, cosmic dust does impact Earth.  About 5200 tons of space dust falls on our planet each year, according to NASA.  Although suggestions that it can impact climate are being investigated, there’s no reason to believe that this has harmful implications, and it’s something that our planet has been dealing with forever.  In fact, it’s been suggested that cosmic dust can fertilize phytoplankton in our oceans, in a way that could be quite beneficial.

The Bottom Line

Space dust is an inevitable byproduct of space bodies which transform over time, leaving a dusty residue in their wake.  The good news is that space dust is not inherently harmful, either in space or on Earth.  And, if you catch it just at the right moment, it can be quite a breathtaking sight.

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