If diamonds are a girl's best friend, then Jupiter just might be a girl's favorite planet.
Diamonds form naturally deep below the surface of our planet. The high heat and pressure there breaks down deeply-buried methane, a gas composed of carbon and hydrogen. The carbon atoms then align to create graphite — the lead in your pencil — then compresses further to become diamond. Both graphite and diamond are forms of pure carbon with different arrangements of the carbon atoms.
Most laboratory-created diamonds used for jewelry are created by a different process, called chemical vapor deposition. The process, developed in the 1980s, offers simplicity and flexibility for jewelry production. Necessary temperatures are relatively low, and the diamonds can form at pressures about half of Earth's normal atmospheric pressure. This method involves feeding carbon-containing gases into a chamber and zapping them with electricity to break the gasses down. The diamonds essentially grow atom by atom as carbon atoms stack up with other carbon atoms.
The first laboratory-created diamonds essentially mimicked what Earth does naturally. Using a tiny diamond as a seed, the necessary raw materials were mixed in a kind of vice, heated to around 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit and a pressure 50,000 times greater than Earth's standard atmosphere pressure. This is still the cheapest way to create diamonds in a laboratory, but the diamonds produced this way tend to be best suited for industrial purposes.
Both Jupiter and Saturn make diamonds using a combination of these two processes. Both planets contain significant amounts of methane in their atmospheres. The creation of diamonds on both planets starts when lightning storms high in the atmosphere break the methane into soot — carbon dust — which falls into layers of the atmosphere with increasing pressure and hardens into chunks of graphite, which then become diamonds at even greater pressures.
In Jupiter, the biggest of the diamonds would be more than a quarter of an inch diameter, “big enough to put on a ring, although, of course, they would be uncut,” Kevin Baines, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said.
That would be a 4-carat diamond ring!
On Thanksgiving Day, Comet ISON will nearly graze the sun in its orbital path. It will then appear in our evening sky. If the close passage by the sun doesn't destroy it, it may become the comet of the century. The 21st century still has a lot of time to go, so who knows what is heading our way. But it would be the brightest comet seen in more than 100 years. According to the most optimistic predictions, it will even be visible in daylight.
We can't yet send humans to Jupiter to mine precious stones, but if diamonds ever start raining out of our atmosphere, we'll let you know. And we'll keep you up with the rest of the night sky in our daily presentation of “Tonight's Sky” in the Kirkpatrick Planetarium of Science Museum Oklahoma. Call 602-3761 or visit our Web page at www.sciencemuseumok.org for more information.
The Oklahoma City Astronomy Club meeting occurs on Friday. Visit www.okcastroclub.com for more details.
Brilliant Venus, the “evening star,” outshone only by our Moon, dominates the western twilight sky all month. It is the sole planet visible in the evening after dark until midmonth when Jupiter pops over the eastern horizon around 10 p.m. Mars rises around 2 a.m. all month. Both Mercury and Saturn rise before the sun all month but will be difficult to see due to the sun's twilight glow. New moon occurred on Sunday with full moon following on the Nov. 17.
Wayne Harris-Wyrick is director of the Kirkpatrick Planetarium at Science Museum Oklahoma. Questions or comments may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.