Thursday December 6, 2018 | by Ivana Pencheff

Astronomers trace the source of the basic ingredient of glass to ancient supernovas that dusted the universe with silica

"Every time we gaze through a window, walk down the pavement, or set foot on a sandy beach, we are interacting with material made by exploding stars that burned millions of years ago," says Haley Gomez, a professor at Cardiff University's School of Physics and Astronomy.

According to a newly published paper Gomez co-authored, silica (the main component of glass) was first formed inside the heart of exploding stars. Scientists were able to detect silica billions of light years away, in the remnants of two distant supernova. A supernova occurs when a star runs out of fuel and collapses, leading to a supremely intense explosion which marks the end of its life. During these explosions, individual atoms fuse together to form many of the common ‘heavy’ elements, like sulfur and calcium. The silica was detected by using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The revelation emerged by observing the specific wavelength of light that the supernova exhibited.

Credit for this groundbreaking discovery goes to the paper's other author, Jeonghee Rho, an astronomer at the SETI Institute in California, who determined that the grains of silica within the supernovae are shaped like rugby balls, and are not completely spherical as previously believed. The European Space Agency's Herschel Space Observatory was able to take this newly found observation and conduct an estimate of how much silica is produced by each star explosion. 

It is estimated that silica makes up about 60 percent of the Earth's crust. Previous research has shown traces of large amounts of silica in our Universe, however they were puzzled as to where it was coming from. Cardiff University's Gomez said, "We've shown for the first time that the silica produced by the supernovae was significant enough to contribute to the dust throughout the Universe, including the dust that ultimately came together to form our home planet."

It is fitting, somehow, that the otherworldly and ethereal qualities that make glass such a unique and unusual material should emanate not from our world, but from spectacular astrophysical phenomenon from the distant reaches of the universe.

GLASS: The UrbanGlass Quarterly, a glossy art magazine published four times a year by UrbanGlass has provided a critical context to the most important artwork being done in the medium of glass for 35 years.