Are there diamonds in Jupiter and Saturn's skies?
It's possible that diamonds could stud not just the metaphorical skies touted in pop songs, but Saturn and Jupiter's skies, as well
On Earth, diamonds bankroll dictatorships and criminal syndicates and furnish a multibillion dollar industry that touts the jewels as promises of love.Skip to next paragraph
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On Jupiter and Saturn, diamonds don't do any of this. But their mere theoretical presence in these two planet's skies is as enthralling a surprise to scientists as a diamond ring is to an enthusiastic bride-to-be, or to a crook dreaming of big profits from the little gem.
While diamonds have long been believed to salt the cold planets Uranus and Neptune, there had been little work on if the gems could be formed on the hotter planets with more pressurized cores, let alone exist in solid form. Most of the data had suggested that this was improbable: Jupiter and Saturn are methane poor (methane yields carbon, which is what diamonds are made of) and have cores at such galling pressures that diamond would not seem to exist there.
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But, in recent years, scientists have revised their understanding of the processes and conditions on our solar system's fifth and sixth planets. At the same time, scientists are also revising their predictions for diamonds’ behavior under extreme pressure and temperature. This week, these cross-disciplinary revisions in findings culminated with a paper presented at the American Astronomical Society’s conference in Denver, Colo.
The paper’s authors are Mona L. Delitsky, a researcher at California Specialty Engineering, and Kevin H. Baines, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The idea that diamonds could stud the skies of Saturn and Jupiter began in 2004, with the Cassini probe’s arrival in the Saturn system. As Cassini surveyed Saturn’s skies, scientists reported that there appeared to be lightening storms in in the planet’s atmosphere. This was exciting news – these storms could be brewing up countless chemical reactions. Then, three years ago, Delitsky and Baines reported that the darkest, stormiest regions of these thunderstorms were in fact brimming with methane, a gas that, when broken down, yields carbon.
These two factors combined into an intriguing coincidence: What little methane Saturn had was harbored in just the right spot to fuel an extraterrestrial diamond rush. The lightning, the scientists now propose, provides the requisite energy to disassociate methane into hydrogen and carbon. These storms boil at some 53,540 degrees Fahrenheit, the researchers say; tests have shown that carbon can be broken down at about 3,140 degrees Fahrenheit.
And where there is carbon, there can be diamonds – if the temperature and the pressure are right. The new carbon, denser than methane, begins to fall through the atmosphere, the scientists say. As it reaches denser and denser altitudes, it too becomes denser. At a certain point, it becomes graphite. Then, under more and more pressure, it becomes diamond.