Penetration of nearby supernova dust in the inner solar system

Themis Athanassiadou, B. D. Fields

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We investigate the method by which nearby supernovae - within a few tens of pc of the solar system - can penetrate the solar system and deposit live radioactivities on earth. The radioactive isotopic signatures that could potentially leave an observable geological imprint are in the form of refractory metals; consequently, it is likely they would arrive in the form of supernova-produced dust grains. Such grains can penetrate into the solar system more easily than the bulk supernova plasma, which gets stalled and deflected near the solar system due to the solar wind plasma pressure. We therefore examine the motion of charged grains as they decouple from the supernova plasma and are influenced by the solar magnetic, radiation, and gravitational fields. We characterize the dust trajectories with analytical approximations which display the roles of grain size, initial velocity, and surface voltage. These results are verified with full numerical simulations for wide ranges of dust properties. We find that supernova dust grains traverse the inner solar system nearly undeflected, if the incoming grain velocity - which we take to be that of the incident supernova remnant - is comparable to the solar wind speeds and much larger than the escape velocity at 1 AU. Consequently, the dust penetration to 1 AU has essentially 100% transmission probability and the dust capture onto the earth should have a geometric cross section. Our results cast in a new light the terrestrial deposition of radioisotopes from nearby supernovae in the geological past. For explosions beyond ∼10 pc from earth, dust grains can still deliver supernova ejecta to earth, and thus the amount of supernova material deposited is set by the efficiency of dust condensation and survival in supernovae. Turning the problem around, we use observations of live 60Fe in both deep-ocean and lunar samples to infer a conservative lower bound iron condensation efficiency of Mdust,Fe/M tot,Fe ≳ 4 × 10-4 for the supernova which apparently produced these species 2-3 Myr ago.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)229-241
Number of pages13
JournalNew Astronomy
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 2011


  • Astrobiology
  • Dust
  • Interplanetary medium
  • Nuclear reactions, nucleosynthesis, abundances
  • Supernovae: general

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Instrumentation
  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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