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The Sombrero Galaxy contains a rather peculiar ring of dust orbiting it (seen as the dark ring on the outer edge). What is the prevalent element in this dust? Carbon?

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Follow-up question: astronomy.stackexchange.com/questions/421/… –  Undo the Snowman Sep 30 '13 at 18:58

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I think that first, we have to properly appreciate the size of the Sombrero Galaxy. It is roughly 50,000 light years (15 kilo parsecs) in diameter. That might be only half of the diameter of our own Milky Way galaxy, but still makes each and every pixel on the photograph you're attaching in your question stretch more than 100 light years in distance.

That's a huge distance, so we can probably agree that clouds made of nearly anything and at least as dense as what you'd on average expect the interstellar medium to be comprised of, would obscure even the strongests light sources within that galaxy. This is important to realize, so we somewhat lower your expectations; These areas aren't tightly packed with anything, we're just talking of such vast distances that the light has to travel through, that even almost nothing will be enough to stop it from shining through.

Now to your question what it is comprised of. It is in essence matter from the interstellar medium that stops this light from reaching us, so nothing in particular that you wouldn't expect also in similar areas between stars within our Milky Way, or indeed any other galaxy that is roughly in the same age period of its development. Since the Sombrero Galaxy isn't even all that far away in cosmological sense, merely around 29 million light years, it has an apparent magnitude of ~ 9 and is a rather good target for observations of even hobbyist astronomers with enthusiast telescopes. More importantly though, you aren't looking that far into the past. Again, in the cosmological sense. For comparison, our Sun is roughly 4.5 billion years old, and we're observing the Sombrero Galaxy as it was 29 million years ago.

So what is this interstellar medium made of? On average, it is comprised of mostly gas clouds of hydrogen and helium forming during the primordial nucleosynthesis (read: Big Bang) and at most a few percent of heavier trace elements, some also in gas form and an itsy-bitsy percentage of these would combine into even heavier dust particles, mostly made of carbon, silicon, and oxygen (source for the interplanetary dust composition: NASA APOD). Remember, when I say clouds and dust, they are incredibly thin. So thin, you'd have to be traveling at a significant portion of C to even notice it much, unless you're looking for it with extremely sensitive equipment, like Voyager 1 and 2 do, for example. But even with such low particle density, some regions would be slightly denser, and some slightly thinner. And that is what creates that majestic dust lane of the Sombrero Galaxy.

They are interstellar medium, mostly made of primordial hydrogen and helium, and dust made of carbon, silicon, oxygen and other trace elements, and all of it hundreds of light years in length and obscuring light from the galaxy's stars to penetrate through at varying levels, depending on background light strength, proximity, and local interstellar medium cloud density. The color of the cloud says nothing of its composition. It is mostly black with parts of it shifting towards red hues due to molecules of gas and dust in the interstellar medium scattering blue light from the source of light more than they scatter red light. I.e. the same reason why the Sun or the Moon appear more red when they're low on the horizon.

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