Astronomers have spotted an exotic planet that seems to be made of diamond racing around a tiny star in our galactic backyard.
Scientists at the University of Manchester and international colleagues made the discovery while studying a rare spinning star which lies 4,000 light years from Earth in the Milky Way.
The unusual star – known as a pulsar – spins around hundreds of times every second, giving off beams of radio waves like a lighthouse as it turns.
But irregular movements in the radio pulses being received by scientists back on Earth told them something else must be getting in the way.
In a study published in the Science journal the researchers, led by Prof Matthew Bailes of Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, concluded that the beams were being swayed by a companion planet orbiting the star.
Even though the star itself has a diameter of just 20km – the size of a small city – the planet measures up to 60,000km across, about five times the Earth’s diameter, and is about 300 times heavier.
It is believed to be the remnant of another, huge star which transferred its energy to the pulsar when it died, leaving behind a crystallised core made of carbon and oxygen, similar to diamond.
Despite measuring only 20km across, the pulsar known as J1719-1438 is so dense that its mass is almost one-and-a-half times greater than that of the sun.
Dropping a brick onto the star, Prof Bailes said, would generate about as much energy as an atom bomb.
Astronomers detected a similar planet in December 2010, only 1,200 light years away.
If it is a diamond, does the planet glitter like an Earthly gem? “It’s highly speculative, but if you shine a light on it, I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t sparkle like a diamond,” says Travis Metcalfe of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. He previously found a white dwarf – the remnant of an old star – with a carbon-crystal core that was under higher pressure than the new planet, producing a crystalline structure distinct from diamond.
Moshe Mosbacher, president of the Diamond Dealers Club in New York says he has “no clue” how much a diamond of this size would fetch, without first knowing its quality. But he is intrigued. “If there’s some way to transport it to New York and cut it, it doesn’t make a difference if it’s from inner space or outer space.”
An international team of astronomers, led by Australia’s Swinburne University of Technology professor Matthew Bailes, has discovered a planet made of diamond crystals, in our own Milky Way galaxy.
The planet is relatively small at around 60,000 km in diameter (still, it’s five times the size of Earth). But despite its diminutive stature, this crystal space rock has more mass than the solar system’s gas giant Jupiter.
Radio telescope data shows that it orbits its star at a distance of 600,000 km, making years on planet diamond just two hours long. Any closer and it would be ripped to shreds by the star’s gravitational tug. Putting together its immense mass and close orbit, researchers can reveal the planet’s unique makeup.
It’s “likely to be largely carbon and oxygen,” said Michael Keith, one of the research team members, in a press release. Lighter elements, “like hydrogen and helium would be too big to fit the measured orbiting times”. The object’s density means that the material is certain to be crystalline, meaning a large part of the planet may be similar to a diamond.
While the planet is an exciting find, it’s parental star is also quite interesting as well. It’s a pulsar (with the catchy name PSR J1719-1438), which are small spinning stars about 20 km in diameter — around the same size as London.
It’s also a very fast spinning pulsar (called a millisecond pulsar), rotating more than 10,000 times per minute. Like its companion planet, its mass far outweighs its minuscule size — it has a mass of about 1.4 times that of our Sun.
Astronomers believe that the diamond planet was once a star of its own, but the pulsar ripped off its outer layers and siphoned off 99.9 percent of its mass. The transferred matter is what caused the pulsar to spin at such a frenzied pace.
Researchers from institutions in the UK, Australia, Germany, Italy and the USA used a variety of radio telescopes — including the Australian Parkes CSIRO, the Lovell in Cheshire and the Keck in Hawaii — and 200,000 Gigabytes of celestial data to find the distant pulsar and its nifty diamond-esque planet.