The dust that forms the stars and planets of our galaxy has been restored in a laboratory.
Professor Martin McKustra and a team of scientists from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh have spent the last 12 years examining how ice forms and behaves around tiny points in the interstellar environment.
From this, new stars and planets are formed, as well as structures such as the Eagle Nebula, which give rise to complex organic molecules from which life may originate.
Astrochemists have recreated a deep space in their laboratory and discovered that dust is much more structurally complex than previously thought.
Professor Mekkusta compared it to a "badly baked cherry" instead of the widespread belief that dust is structured like onions.
He said: "These tiny snowballs play key roles in the development of the current universe, from controlling the star formation process to providing a census of organic molecules from which biology could evolve.
"If we understand their formation and evolution, then we can appreciate those roles more fully.
"The onion model visualizes the ice sheet as a series of layers, where the basic powdered grain is first completely covered with a thick layer of water-rich ice.
"On top of that layer, other species are attracted to the temperature. This means that a relatively pure layer of water directly communicates with the surface of the powdered grain, while other species, such as carbon monoxide, will interact with the surface of the water.
"We have found that water is more floating on the surface of grain than dust and tends to form little islands of ice, unlike a uniform film. This leaves parts of the grain surface free to attract other species.
"So instead of onions, take a picture of a poorly baked cherry cake, where the cherries have sunk to the bottom of the icing cake while baking."
Proxy Proxy Dust – a copper plate coated in fine silica particles, cooled to a few degrees above absolute zero and in an ultra-high vacuum – was used for experiments on various species found in the environment.
The team now hopes that other scientists will test their ideas to help develop understanding.
Professor Mekkustra added: "We are refining our model of how dust grows and by combining computer simulation and simulation, we have developed a hypothesis that has been proven so far.
"This work has stimulated international collaboration to study the development of space icons, which was given a monitored time on the Web Space Telescope during the first months of its operation.
"Aspects of this complex process still need more detailed research, especially the role of cosmic rays and ultraviolet light in driving non-thermal processes on and ice coats with grain."
The paper – Surface Science Research on the Mantle Ice Growth of Interstellar Dust Grains in Cooling Areas – can be read in full online.