A 40,000 mile wide planet composed entirely of diamond has been discovered orbiting a pulsar in deep space.

The 'planet' probably doesn't quite glitter like an earth diamond. Data suggests its covered in a layer of black soot, with the diamond hiding beneath.

Researchers at Swimbourne University, Australia, discovered the precious planet when they were systematically analysing huge amounts of data looking for the repeating patterns of pulsars. These dead stars spit unidirectional beams of radiation out into space which we see on earth as uniformly repeating flashes. They report in Science that this pulsar, known as PSR J1719-1438 had the usual repeating patterns, but every so often the flash would appear at slightly odd time, indicating that some kind of body was orbiting and interfering with the emissions.

Looking at the system more closely the astronomers could work out it’s weight, size and some other characteristics. They concluded that it must be made of diamond.

Diamond on earth is formed when carbon is crushed into a crystalline state by huge pressures underground. The diamond present in the planet could have been formed by pressure too, but it must have been a much greater force than anything experienced by terrestrial diamond, as the galactic diamond is about seven times as dense, at 23g/cm3. In fact the object has the same mass as Jupiter but is roughly a quarter the size.

Although if valued in Earth terms the diamond object would be worth a trillion, trillion dollars, it is more than just a hugely valuable space oddity. It also serves as an illustration of how binary pulsars – that is, pulsars which have an orbiting body - might form. Astronomers know that pulsars which spin very fast (in the case of PSR J1719-1438 about once every 6 milliseconds) are usually formed when one of two stars orbiting each other begins to die. That means the newly discovered diamond ’planet’ is in fact probably the remnant of a old star. The amazing pressures that formed the huge ball of diamond probably arose while the precursor star was dying and being sucked into the pulsar, stoking it up to its breath-taking speed.

Planets composed partially of diamond have been discovered before, and since all you have to do to make it is squeeze carbon very hard it seems likely that there are other diamond planets in space – perhaps many of them.  If more are discovered a new class of planets, termed ‘superdiamonds’ could be created.

Josh Howgego

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