Diamonds may be raining from the sky on more planets than we realize: Science warns

If we could fly through the extreme conditions of Neptune's atmosphere, we could experience the wonderful phenomenon of diamond rain tapping on our window.

Such blizzards may be common across the universe, according to a new study by an international team of researchers.

The extremely high temperatures and pressures in the atmosphere allow carbon to form into a crystal on giant, icy gas planets like Neptune and Uranus. These conditions break down hydrocarbons such as methane, allowing the carbon atoms inside to bond with four others and form particles of solid diamond.

Based on experiments outlined in a recent study that simulated diamond-forming processes at laboratory conditions, the temperature and pressure limits for this type of diamond formation are lower than scientists thought.

How the diamond shower occurs on Neptune and affects its magnetic field. (European XFEL/Tobias Wüstefeld)

It will make a diamond shower possible Small gas planets, called 'mini-Neptunes'. There are plenty of these outside the solar system that we know of.

The findings may also explain some mysteries about the magnetic fields of Uranus and Neptune.

„This exciting discovery not only deepens our knowledge of our local icy planets, but also has implications for understanding similar processes in exoplanets beyond our solar system.” He says Physicist Siegfried Kleinzer of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

The team behind the new study used European XFEL (X-ray Free-Electron Laser) Hydrocarbon compound is forced under great pressures between a substrate-like structure to track diamonds formed from a polystyrene film.

European XFEL laser
Part of the test system. (European XFEL/Jan Hosan)

This configuration allowed the team to observe the process longer than in previous experiments. That drawn-out experiment suggested that even though extreme pressure and extremely hot temperatures are still needed, they don't have to be as extreme as previously thought.

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For the planets, this suggests that diamonds may form at a shallower depth than scientists estimate — and then the descending diamond particles, dragging in gas and ice, could further affect the planets' magnetic fields. A more direct way than we previously understood.

Unlike Earth, ice planets such as Neptune and Uranus do not have symmetric magnetic fields. It's been a mystery until now — suggesting that magnetic fields don't form at the planetary core — and diamonds could help explain that.

„This could kick-start motions within the conductive ices found on these planets and affect the generation of their magnetic fields.” He says Physicist Mungo Frost, from the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

These are intriguing things that future studies can look into more deeply. In recent years, scientists have come closer to understanding how this process might work on distant planets and what the consequences might be.

Who knows – one day we may be able to do some real field research into the grotesque atmospheres of Neptune and Uranus to see first-hand how these diamond showers form.

„Diamond showers on icy planets present us with an intriguing puzzle to solve,” He says Snow.

Published in the thesis Natural Astronomy.

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