Mon, Oct 22, 2012 - Page 7 News List

Astronomers find diamond planet bigger than Earth

VALUABLE DISCOVERY:Forty light years away, 55 Cancri e might have the three Earth-masses of diamond, has an 18-hour year and reaches 2148°C

Reuters, LONDON

Forget the diamond as big as the Ritz. This one’s bigger than planet Earth.

Orbiting a star that is visible to the naked eye, astronomers have discovered a planet that is twice the size of our own, and which is made largely out of diamond.

The rocky planet, which is called 55 Cancri e, orbits a sun-like star in the constellation of Cancer and is moving so fast that a year there lasts a mere 18 hours.

Discovered by a US-Franco research team, its radius is twice that of Earth’s and its mass is eight times greater.

HOT SPOT

It is also incredibly hot, with temperatures on its surface reaching 2,148oC.

“The surface of this planet is likely covered in graphite and diamond, rather than water and granite,” said Nikku Madhusudhan, the Yale researcher whose findings are due to be published in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The study — with Olivier Mousis at the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie in Toulose, France — estimates that at least a third of the planet’s mass, the equivalent of about three Earth masses, could be diamond.

Diamond planets have been spotted before, but this is the first time one has been seen orbiting a sun-like star and studied in such detail.

DIFFERENT CHEMISTRY

“This is our first glimpse of a rocky world with a fundamentally different chemistry from Earth,” Madhusudhan said, adding that the discovery of the carbon-rich planet meant distant rocky planets could no longer be assumed to have chemical constituents, interiors, atmospheres or biologies similar to Earth.

Princeton University astronomer David Spergel said it was relatively simple to work out the basic structure and history of a star once you know its mass and age.

“Planets are much more complex. This ‘diamond-rich super-Earth’ is likely just one example of the rich sets of discoveries that await us as we begin to explore planets around nearby stars,” he said.

“Nearby” is a relative concept in astronomy. Any fortune-hunter not dissuaded by The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s jazz age morality tale of thwarted greed, will find Cancri e about 40 light years from Park Avenue.

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