Space diamonds: real or science fiction?
Diamonds have long been the gift of choice for many, but for some time, it was thought these beautiful stones could only occur on the planet. In 2012, though, a very special discovery changed all of that. Travis Metcalfe, along with a team of researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in the US, discovered crystallised carbon nearly 50 light years from Earth.
As many know, crystallised carbon is what forms a diamond, but this isn't your average stone. Instead, it weighs approximately 5 million trillion trillion pounds, or 10 billion trillion trillion carats. The largest diamond on Earth is just 530 carats. It’s the Star of Africa, and it was originally cut from a stone that was 3,100 carats, still far smaller than this stone in space.
Are there more?
The 2012 discovery was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to diamonds in space. Meteorites crashing into the planet have long been known to contain tiny diamond fragments, and when they're big enough, the diamonds can be rather impressive. While there are no clear theories on why diamonds form in space, there are few good ideas out there, including:
- The 2012 discovery was clearly a crystallised white dwarf, the core of a star after it had spent its fuel and died. While astronomers long thought the interiors of white dwarves crystallised, there was no clear evidence of that until that discovery occurred.
- Some space diamonds may come from asteroids colliding together. The shock of the impact from the hit may be enough to push the carbon inside asteroids into diamonds.
- Others may form inside space rocks that aren’t big enough to be planets but are larger than asteroids. As solar systems shift and change, it’s possible those space rocks move around enough to come to the surface of the Earth as asteroids billions of years after the formation of the rock itself.
Can we mine them?
No matter how they’ve formed, now that we’ve proven diamonds do exist in space, the next big question is whether or not we can access those diamonds without the need for an asteroid crash. It’s certainly possible in theory, and there are many companies out there that are already devoting resources to creating the equipment and technology necessary to mine the asteroids within our solar system just to find diamonds and other precious metals and materials. Some have been so bold to say that we’ll be doing it within the next decade.
Not everyone is that optimistic, though. Many scientists have called into question the possibility that asteroids could be mined profitably. One NASA mission managed to return 60 grams of an asteroid to Earth for scientific study, but it came at a cost of $1 billion.
So, space mining may be possible in the future, but it’s not likely to be profitable for generations to come. Will you see space diamonds in your lifetime? It's certainly possible, but it’s going to take quite a bit of work to get them here.