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Planets made of diamond may be hanging out in the cosmos

Published Sep 14th, 2020 11:14PM EDT
diamond planets
Image: NASA

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  • Researchers theorize that, under the right conditions, carbon-rich exoplanets could generate huge quantities of diamonds beneath their surface.
  • The recipe including heat, pressure, carbon, water, and time results in diamonds, and some planets are likely to have the right combination.
  • These planets are most likely not habitable but may be worth visiting for the resources. 

Earth has a lot of resources. The most valuable ones help to keep us alive and allowed life to exist on this planet in the first place, but some other resources like precious metals and gems are in relatively short supply. The cost of these resources reflects that scarcity, but the same may not be true on other worlds. In fact, some planets may be absolutely packed with resources that we consider rare.

A new study by researchers from Arizona State University and the University of Chicago has revealed that it’s possible for carbon-rich exoplanets to essentially become huge spheres of diamond floating through space.

As the researchers explain, the likelihood of a planet being something akin to a massive diamond is entirely based on the composition of the stars they orbit. Planets orbiting stars that are rich in carbon are more likely to be made of carbon themselves, mostly because the material that makes up a star is usually also responsible for forming the planets that eventually orbit it.

The other key to creating a “diamond exoplanet” is water. Water is abundant on Earth, but it’s also thought to be quite common in the cosmos as a whole. Water, carbon, and pressure — which the planets would have plenty of thanks to gravity — could result in interiors of these plants being packed with diamonds.

The researchers tested their theory by placing silicon carbide in a very high-pressure situation. They placed it in water and then compressed it with diamond “anvils” to boost the stress on the carbon, then heated it up using a laser to mimic the conditions inside a carbon-rich planet. The formula of heat, pressure, water, and carbon worked, and the result was diamonds and silica.

One big key that the researchers are quick to point out in their study published in The Planetary Science Journal is that these planets, while enticing, would definitely not be hospitable to life as we know it. The high carbon concentration would inhibit geological activity and, it’s thought, lead to an inhospitable atmosphere. Nevertheless, such planets could be targets for human exploration when it comes to resources.

“Regardless of habitability, this is one additional step in helping us understand and characterize our ever-increasing and improving observations of exoplanets,” Harrison Allen-Sutter, lead author of the study, said in a statement. “The more we learn, the better we’ll be able to interpret new data from upcoming future missions like the James Webb Space Telescope and the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope to understand the worlds beyond our own solar system.”