The interplanetary dust cloud, or zodiacal cloud, consists of cosmic dust (small particles floating in outer space) that pervades the space between planets within planetary systems such as the Solar System. This system of particles has been studied for many years in order to understand its nature, origin, and relationship to larger bodies.
In our Solar System, the interplanetary dust particles have a role in scattering sunlight and in emitting thermal radiation, which is the most prominent feature of the night sky's radiation with wavelengths ranging 5–50 μm. The particle sizes of grains characterizing the infrared emission near Earth's orbit typically range 10–100 μm.
The total mass of the interplanetary dust cloud is approximately the mass of an asteroid of radius 15 km (with density of about 2.5 g/cm3). Straddling the zodiac along the ecliptic, this dust cloud is visible as the zodiacal light in a moonless and naturally dark sky and is best seen toward the Sun's direction during astronomical twilight.
The sources of interplanetary dust particles (IDPs) include at least: asteroid collisions, cometary activity and collisions in the inner Solar System, Kuiper belt collisions, and interstellar medium grains (Backman, D., 1997). Indeed, one of the longest-standing controversies debated in the interplanetary dust community revolves around the relative contributions to the interplanetary dust cloud from asteroid collisions and cometary activity.
Life cycle of a particle
The main physical processes "affecting" (destruction or expulsion mechanisms) interplanetary dust particles are: expulsion by radiation pressure, inward Poynting-Robertson (PR) radiation drag, solar wind pressure (with significant electromagnetic effects), sublimation, mutual collisions, and the dynamical effects of planets (Backman, D., 1997).
The lifetimes of these dust particles are very short compared to the lifetime of the Solar System. If one finds grains around a star that is older than about 10,000,000 years, then the grains must have been from recently released fragments of larger objects, i.e. they cannot be leftover grains from the protoplanetary disk (Backman, private communication). Therefore, the grains would be "later-generation" dust. The zodiacal dust in the Solar System is 99.9% later-generation dust and 0.1% intruding interstellar medium dust. All primordial grains from the Solar System's formation were removed long ago.
Particles which are affected primarily by radiation pressure are known as "beta meteoroids". They are generally less than 1.4 × 10−12 g and are pushed outward from the Sun into interstellar space.
The interplanetary dust cloud has a complex structure (Reach, W., 1997). Apart from a background density, this includes:
- At least 8 dust trails—their source is thought to be short-period comets.
- A number of dust bands, the sources of which are thought to be asteroid families in the main asteroid belt. The three strongest bands arise from the Themis family, the Koronis family, and the Eos family. Other source families include the Maria, Eunomia, and possibly the Vesta and/or Hygiea families (Reach et al. 1996).
- At least 2 resonant dust rings are known (for example, the Earth-resonant dust ring, although every planet in the Solar System is thought to have a resonant ring with a "wake") (Jackson and Zook, 1988, 1992) (Dermott, S.F. et al., 1994, 1997)
Dust collection on Earth
In 1951, Fred Whipple predicted that micrometeorites smaller than 100 micrometers in diameter might be decelerated on impact with the Earth's upper atmosphere without melting. The modern era of laboratory study of these particles began with the stratospheric collection flights of D. E. Brownlee and collaborators in the 1970s using balloons and then U-2 aircraft.
Although some of the particles found were similar to the material in present-day meteorite collections, the nanoporous nature and unequilibrated cosmic-average composition of other particles suggested that they began as fine-grained aggregates of nonvolatile building blocks and cometary ice. The interplanetary nature of these particles was later verified by noble gas and solar flare track observations.
In that context a program for atmospheric collection and curation of these particles was developed at Johnson Space Center in Texas. This stratospheric micrometeorite collection, along with presolar grains from meteorites, are unique sources of extraterrestrial material (not to mention being small astronomical objects in their own right) available for study in laboratories today.
Spacecraft that have carried dust detectors include Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Ulysses (heliocentric orbit out to the distance of Jupiter), Galileo (Jupiter Orbiter), Cassini (Saturn orbiter), and New Horizons (see Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter).
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