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Crushed Diamonds Help Study Planets to Their Core

Jul 17, 2014 10:16 AM EDT

Physicists have used the world's biggest and most powerful laser to zap and crush diamonds, nature's hardest material, the results of which can possibly reveal more about the cores of giant planets, US scientists report.

Inside a target chamber at the US National Ignition Facility - which was recently featured in the newest Star Trek film - researchers condensed the carbon crystal to the core pressure of Saturn - 14 times that at the center of the Earth.

According to the study published in the journal Nature, this experiment gives clues as to the conditions deep inside giant, carbon-rich planets.

"We don't know what lies within the core of Jupiter or Saturn but now for the first time we now have the ability to study how matter exists under these extreme conditions of pressure and temperature," lead author Dr. Ray Smith, of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, told BBC News.

"Our experiments provide a method for recreating conditions within the cores of giant gas planets - both within our solar system and beyond."

Diamonds don't just exist as expensive jewelry here on Earth. They are made of carbon, one of the most abundant elements in the Universe, and scientists now believe that they are at the center of many giant planets.

Neptune is one of those planets that they suspect has a diamond core. But this planet, as well as other Neptune-sized planets, has an extremely dense core - something that is not easily recreated on Earth.

"The challenge in our experiments was keeping temperatures low enough to be relevant to gas giant planets like Jupiter," Smith explained.

Using a technique known as "dynamic ramped compression," US scientists focused 176 laser beams onto a diamond target that was merely millimeters in size.

The diamond, held at the center of a 10-meter capsule, was at the density of lead before it was vaporized by the laser energy. The results show that this precious stone can withstand crushing, and more experiments are being planned for the future to see how its behavior might change, according to NPR.

"If we want to understand which planets beyond Earth may ultimately be habitable, we must develop a broad understanding of all the possible end products of planet-forming processes," Smith told BBC.

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