Scientists Create Diamond Rain to Research Neptune's Strange Weather

Solar System
Monday, 21 August 2017 - 8:51PM

Some people get to have all the fun.

Researchers at the SLAC Laboratory at Stanford have recently been attempting to recreate the conditions on the gassy surface of the planet Neptune. The planet's unique high-pressure environment and methane-heavy atmosphere means that carbon atoms are regularly compressed into diamond, before raining down on the planet's surface, sinking into the ground, and developing a crystalline core - its neighbor Uranus has a similar makeup.

In order to understand what it's like on the surface of the planet, the team have come up with a novel solution: if we can't send scientists to visit Neptune, then Neptune will have to come to the scientists. The experiment has seen the scientists attempt to adequately recreate the conditions on Neptune and Uranus in a controlled laboratory environment.

Naturally, this involves more than just spraying some natural gas into a room and then tipping a bucket of rocks over someone's head. The team have used the Matter in Extreme Conditions (MEC) instrument, a component within the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), the most powerful x-ray laser in the world, to transform particles into the air into tiny, nano-sized diamonds. Meanwhile, gaseous polystyrene has been used in place of methane, as both materials are made up of hydrogen and carbon atoms.

The test has been small and contained, but it's allowed scientists to get a far better idea of the weather cycle on a planet that rains diamonds amid a murky methane atmosphere. The teeny tiny diamonds created by the LCLS are nothing compared to the real thing - right now, somewhere on Neptune, it's probably raining diamonds that are millions of carats in size. The sort of thing that would certainly put your engagement ring to shame.

Speaking to Gizmodo, researcher Dominik Kraus in Dresden (an author on a paper explaining the project) explained things some more:

"This [condition] will generate diamond precipitation inside such celestial bodies. This means that there is not necessarily a pure diamond core but certainly a large diamond envelope around the rocky cores that are supposed to exist inside Neptune and Uranus...

If the temperature is high enough close to the core (some calculations predict that) it could also be 'oceans of liquid carbon' with gigantic 'diamond icebergs', swimming on top of it. But most theories suggest that diamond would remain solid, at least inside Neptune and Uranus, but this may be different for some exoplanets."

Recent attempts to visit Neptune through the use of unmanned satellites have proven unsuccessful, in large part due to funding issues that led to NASA suffering from a shortage of plutonium required to power the spacecraft.

Regardless, the fact that the weather conditions in the SLAC's tests are if anything more useful than actually sending a robotic helper to Neptune, as the researchers are able to monitor their results personally, and alter the environment's condition to get a better look at what's going on in their faux-Neptunian rainstorm.

By all accounts, the experiment has been a resounding success, leading the scientists to next plan similar research projects to investigate the conditions on other planets through the solar system. And since we still have a ways to go before any human could visit even Mars in person, this is the closest we may get to "visiting" the crazy weather patterns around our solar system.