Let NASA go back to the Moon and Elon Musk go to Mars. People in the know (that’s you, me and the select few we tell) are planning trips to Neptune and Uranus to gather up buckets of diamonds raining from the clouds and bring them back to Earth. Crazy? Not according to a new study by Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) – not a law firm but a German research organization – which developed a way to analyze the hydrocarbon gas mixture enveloping these planets and found that they “can produce a kind of diamond rain.” When does the next rocket leave? And don’t forget to bring a big, strong sack!
“At SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University, the researchers studied the structure of the matter in mixtures that are typical for planets, in the case of ice giants, hydrocarbon, employing intense laser light. Standard plastic film served as a substitute for planetary hydrocarbon. An optical high-energy laser converts the plastic into warm dense matter: short, strong laser pulses generate shock waves in the film and compress the plastic to the extreme.”
According to the study, published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers at Stanford under the direction of Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf used a new technique based on X-ray scattering to simulate the conditions on Neptune, Uranus and similar gas exoplanets. The short, strong laser-generated shock waves create intense pressure -- described as the equivalent of 250 elephants stacked on a human thumbnail (ouch!) – which heats the plastic up to 5,000 degrees F. Laser light is then aimed at the dense plastic and measured on how it scatters as it passes through. This light can then tell them about the structure of the matter. That’s when they made a startling discovery.
“The researchers observed that in a state of warm dense matter, what was formerly plastic produces diamonds. The high pressure can split the hydrocarbon into carbon and hydrogen. The carbon atoms that are released compact into diamond structures. In the case of planets like Neptune and Uranus this means that the formation of diamonds in their interior can trigger an additional energy source. The diamonds are heavier than the matter surrounding them and slowly sink to the core of the planet in a kind of diamond rain.”
Diamond rain! Take your protein pills and put your helmet on! OK, it’s not quite a piece of Neptunian cake to scoop up handfuls of diamonds like the scientists simulated. For one thing, these are ice giants and the rain is falling on their cores, which are 10,000 km (6,200 miles) deep below layers of hydrogen, helium, hydrocarbons, possibly nitrogen, and ices made of water, ammonia and methane. It’s that methane which forms the diamonds as the pressure heats it up while separating it into carbon and hydrogen. And, while the researchers guarantee that this carbon is in the form of diamonds, they don’t say how big they are nor what the daily rainfall totals are. Is Neptune Seattle or the Sahara? Are they keeping this information for their own trips to the planets?
“Moreover, this method will enable unprecedented measurements of mixing/demixing kinetics in dense plasma environments, e.g., induced by chemistry or hydrodynamic instabilities.”
Being typical scientists, they’re more excited about the new process for studying gas exoplanets than the end result of diamond rains. This is why we need research AND development. There are few things as motivational as greed (sad as that is to say) so this discovery could someday drive the development of large, long-distance mining ships in operations that mimic both science fiction and the age of resource discovery and exploitation on Earth.
On second thought, perhaps we need another letter at the end of space R&D – E for ethics.