Friday, October 12, 2012

Discovery reveals planet made of diamond

Planets come in all sorts of flavours. For instance, our own earth is a rocky planet, while others such as Jupiter are gaseous in origin. Due to our fairly recently acquired ability to peer into the depths of the universe, we have started to see that the variety is much larger than originally anticipated. Examples include a recently discovered planet that consists mainly of water, but we have also found examples that look just like our own earth, further reinforcing the hypothesis that somewhere in this universe, there must be other life forms. Meanwhile our search for planets continues: new on the list is a planet that largely consists of diamond.

55 Cancri e
NASA scientists using the Spitzer Space Telescope made the discovery and dubbed the newfound planet 55 Cancri e, as it was found in the constellation of Cancer. The planet itself is around 40 light years away from us, which means it is relatively close; the star that 55 Cancri e orbits is even visible to the naked eye. Obviously, it is still too far to pay a visit, especially because its surface temperature is way over a 2000 degrees Celsius. 

Because of the intense heat and an abundance of carbon, 55 Cancri e provides excellent conditions for the formation of diamonds. This is because diamonds consist of heavily compressed carbon structures, something which can only be naturally produced by high pressures that go with high temperatures. NASA made computer models that show what 55 Cancri e looks like, revealing a large layer of diamond. The image also shows the planet to be closely orbiting its host star: astronomers calculated that a year on 55 Cancri e lasts only 17 hours.
Diamond planets were already predicted to exist, based on the fact that it was very likely that we would one day find planets consisting largely of carbon, which is coincidentally also the atom that was of paramount importance for the formation of life on earth: basically all the atoms that make up our bodies are based on this element. It was also already hypothesized that 55 Cancri e, discovered about a year ago, could be a carbon planet, something which has now been confirmed. There are more possible planets that could harbour a fair amount of diamond. 

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