Astronomers discover a real gem

Posted on October 13, 2012


55 Cancri e – twinkles like a diamond in the sky

There was great excitement from the women in the newsroom yesterday after the word diamond was uttered in the morning meeting.  A science story that had mystery as well as glamour. Scientists have discovered a new planet which is largely made out of these precious gems.

The rocky planet called ’55 Cancri e’ orbits a sun-like star in the constellation of Cancer and is twice the size of Earth. Researchers believe its surface is covered primarily in carbon in the form of graphite and diamonds rather than water and granite like our planet.

Time is said to move at hyper-speed on this gem-like planet so one year lasts just 18 hours compared to Earth’s 365 days. And despite being 40 light years away from Earth, in dark skies 55 Cancri e’s host star is clearly visible to the naked eye.

Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich told me, “It’s a lovely image – diamonds in the sky – but there’s not likely to be a space mission to mine the diamonds any time soon because it would probably take 10,000 years to get there.

“The planet is intensely hot, 2,000 degrees Centigrade and the diamonds are likely to be buried deep down. We’d end up spending all the diamonds on Earth in order to get there so it’s not a way to get rich quick.

“In general mining in space is being talked about more and more and is moving away from being something science-fiction to something that is more serious. Asteroids are thought to have precious metals and they are relatively close to us in our solar system.

“Although they are moving, if we could chase and catch one it is not far-fetched to think in the next couple of decades this may be tested.”

The study was led by researchers at Yale University who estimate that at least one-third of the 55 Cancri e’s mass – the equivalent of about three Earth masses – could be diamond.

It’s the first time astronomers have identified a diamond planet around a sun-like star and specified its chemical make-up. David Spergel, an astronomer at Princeton University, said it was relatively simple to work out the basic structure and history of a star once you know its mass and age.

He said: “Planets are much more complex. This ‘diamond-rich super-Earth’ is likely just one example of the rich sets of discoveries that await us as we begin to explore planets around nearby stars.”

The paper reporting the findings has been accepted for publication in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.