Scientists Believe It’s Raining Diamonds on These Two Planets

This research may help us develop diamonds for products and better understand nuclear fusion. 

 

“Diamond Rain,” might sound like a newly discovered Prince track. In actuality, it’s a phenomenon scientists believe is occurring on at least two of our solar system’s planets. Neptune and Uranus have hydrocarbon-filled atmospheres, which suggest this weird phenomenon. These are dangerous, greenhouse gases. Sure, it seems more like one of Scrooge McDuck’s daydreams than scientific reality. Even so, a study published in Nature Astronomy, proves it's possible.


To be fair, astrophysicists have been suggesting that diamond rain could be occurring on these and perhaps other planets for over the past three decades or so. But no one’s developed an experiment where every aspect of the phenomenon was measured and recorded, until now. Hydrocarbons such as methane are abundant in the atmospheres of gas giants. It’s in fact this particular greenhouse gas that gives Neptune its distinctive hue.

These far off planets have many layers with different temperatures and pressures occurring at each. Diamond rain is thought to occur 5,000 mi. (8,000 km) below each planet’s surface, in what’s called the intermediate zone. Carbon from the center of these planets rises up into the atmosphere.

There’s extremely high pressure in the intermediate zone, which crushes the carbon and the hydrogen found there, together, creating hydrocarbon gas and releasing a diamond, which floats gently down to the slushy surface below. The diamonds eventually sink into the planet, coming to rest at its solid core, forming a  layer of diamond around it, though some speculate there could be molten diamond seas down there, with floating icebergs made of the gemstone within them.

Much larger diamonds may even form there, some speculate, perhaps weighing hundreds or even thousands of pounds. Gathering diamonds from such a planet is impossible with current tech, however. No spacecraft could survive the extremely high pressure.  

The interiors of icy giant planets like Neptune. Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

Researchers at The Linac Coherent Light Source (SCLS) conducted the study. This is part of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif. The lab is owned by the US Department of Energy (DOE), but it’s operated by Stanford University. The LCLS is an x-ray camera with an exceptionally bright flash that can take photos of molecules and atoms. Stringing images together creates videos of “chemicals processes as they happen.”

Researchers used the LCLS’s x-ray pulses to measure the phenomenon as it occurred. In this way, they could measure and record the chemical reactions that took place, including the formation of the diamond structures. They recorded it in real time using a technique called femtosecond X-ray diffraction.

X-ray blasts from the LCLS only last 50 femtoseconds. This is one quadrillionth of a second, or one millionth of a nanosecond. Of course, a nanosecond is a billionth of a second. So the x-ray pulses lasted 50 millionths of a billionth of a second. The speed was necessary to capture the reaction taking place.

Scientists took polystyrene—a plastic compound that simulates one made from methane. Using SLAC’s X-ray free-electron laser, researchers made twin shock waves in the plastic, creating a high pressure environment analogous to the inner regions of Neptune or Uranus. The laser first caused one small shock wave within the plastic.

This was far slower than a second one, which grew larger than the first and overtook it. When that occurred, almost all of the plastic material transformed into diamonds, each just a few nanometers (billionths of a meter) in width. 

The Matter in Extreme Conditions instrument at SLAC allows scientists to investigate the extremely hot, dense matter at the centers of stars and giant planets. SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

Previous studies just assumed the diamonds formed. This was the first to actually observe their creation. These nanodiamonds sprung to life at 8,540 °F (4,725 °C), at an atmospheric pressure 1.48 million times greater than Earth’s at sea level. These aren’t perfectly cut diamonds but tiny ovals riddled with impurities, just a few atoms thick.

The results may help us better understand, model, and categorize planets. Dominik Kraus was the lead author. He’s an experimental laser physicist from the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf research laboratory in Germany. “We can’t go inside the planets and look at them,” he said, “so these laboratory experiments complement satellite and telescope observations.”

The process used to make the nanodiamonds might also have commercial uses, Kraus said. They could be used in lasers, electronics, explosives, and scientific and medical equipment. Moreover, studies that test matter compression can help scientists better understand the processes behind a nuclear fusion reaction.

With that knowledge, we could develop fusion reactors which provide almost unlimited energy with zero carbon footprint. But that’s in decades to come, perhaps at its earliest in 2030

To hear about diamond rain in other places in the solar system, click here: 

Befriend your ideological opposite. It’s fun.

Step inside the unlikely friendship of a former ACLU president and an ultra-conservative Supreme Court Justice.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Former president of the ACLU Nadine Strossen and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia were unlikely friends. They debated each other at events all over the world, and because of that developed a deep and rewarding friendship – despite their immense differences.
  • Scalia, a famous conservative, was invited to circles that were not his "home territory", such as the ACLU, to debate his views. Here, Strossen expresses her gratitude and respect for his commitment to the exchange of ideas.
  • "It's really sad that people seem to think that if you disagree with somebody on some issues you can't be mutually respectful, you can't enjoy each other's company, you can't learn from each other and grow in yourself," says Strossen.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less

3 ways to find a meaningful job, or find purpose in the job you already have

Learn how to redesign your job for maximum reward.

Videos
  • Broaching the question "What is my purpose?" is daunting – it's a grandiose idea, but research can make it a little more approachable if work is where you find your meaning. It turns out you can redesign your job to have maximum purpose.
  • There are 3 ways people find meaning at work, what Aaron Hurst calls the three elevations of impact. About a third of the population finds meaning at an individual level, from seeing the direct impact of their work on other people. Another third of people find their purpose at an organizational level. And the last third of people find meaning at a social level.
  • "What's interesting about these three elevations of impact is they enable us to find meaning in any job if we approach it the right way. And it shows how accessible purpose can be when we take responsibility for it in our work," says Hurst.
Keep reading Show less

Physicist advances a radical theory of gravity

Erik Verlinde has been compared to Einstein for completely rethinking the nature of gravity.

Photo by Willeke Duijvekam
Surprising Science
  • The Dutch physicist Erik Verlinde's hypothesis describes gravity as an "emergent" force not fundamental.
  • The scientist thinks his ideas describe the universe better than existing models, without resorting to "dark matter".
  • While some question his previous papers, Verlinde is reworking his ideas as a full-fledged theory.
Keep reading Show less

UPS has been discreetly using self-driving trucks to deliver cargo

TuSimple, an autonomous trucking company, has also engaged in test programs with the United States Postal Service and Amazon.


PAUL RATJE / Contributor
Technology & Innovation
  • This week, UPS announced that it's working with autonomous trucking startup TuSimple on a pilot project to deliver cargo in Arizona using self-driving trucks.
  • UPS has also acquired a minority stake in TuSimple.
  • TuSimple hopes its trucks will be fully autonomous — without a human driver — by late 2020, though regulatory questions remain.
Keep reading Show less