For the first time in human history, we’re regularly identifying planets outside of our solar system and even identifying traits.
We’re in the Golden Age (likely the first of many different phases) of discovering exoplanets. For the first time in human history, we’re regularly identifying planets outside of our solar system and even identifying traits – atmospheric and core composition – that tell us which of these worlds are Earth-like.
Scientists are also discovering exoplanets that are decidedly not Earth-like and some of them are truly mind-boggling. In fact, last year NASA devoted a Halloween-themed video and webpage to showcase some of the more extreme new planets they’ve discovered.
These include: “hellscape” planet HD 189733 b, whose winds reach 5,400mph and contain “torrential rains of glass blowing sideways”; the three “zombie worlds” circling pulsar star PSR B1257+12, which flash “sickly irradiated auroras” that might be beautiful were they not extremely deadly to any organic life; Kepler-70b (a.k.a. KOI-55), which at 12,000 degrees F (6,800 C), is one of the hottest planets known to humans; and TrEs-2b, whose surface is less reflective than coal, meaning the extreme darkness of this world would be broken only by a faint Sauron-like burning in a sky that is the temperature of lava.
As sinister and exotic as these planets sound, it’s good to know that there are other worlds out there that, while not hospitable to humans, are shimmering with potential.
Astronomers and geophysicists now believe that a significant number of exoplanets in our galaxy and others could be made primarily of diamond. They base this on the fact that stars contain different proportions of elements and between 12 and 17 percent of planets are likely located around carbon-rich stars. As a contrast, our star is relatively low-carbon and in the early solar system that affected the composition of the planets orbiting it.
Researchers believe that a high-carbon star whose orbiting bodies contain less carbon will produce worlds comprised mostly of silicon carbide. Using lab experiments that tested temperatures up to 2,500 Kelvin and pressures of 50 gigapascals, they concluded that all that would be necessary to produce these almost incomprehensible alien diamond worlds would be oxidization from water caused by sufficient heat and pressure. The resulting density of silicon carbide would stifle any geologic activity.
Geophysicist Harrison Allen-Sutter said, “These exoplanets are unlike anything in our Solar System.”
He added: “This is one additional step in helping us understand and characterise our ever-increasing and improving observations of exoplanets. The more we learn, the better we’ll be able to interpret new data from upcoming future missions like the James Webb Space Telescope and the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope to understand the worlds beyond on our own Solar System.”
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which will deploy next years, will catalyze a new era of exoplanet exploration. Using infrared technology, the transit method, and state of the art spectroscopy, the telescope’s powers of magnification and spectrum analysis will allow scientists to search for biosignatures in the atmospheres of alien worlds.
Perhaps a question to consider now is how far into the future we will have to go to see diamond-mining interstellar missions sponsored by De Beers.