Diamond planet? Maybe, but don't get your hopes up for mining

The discovery of a (relatively) nearby planet-like object potentially made of diamond stirred imaginations recently.

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WALLA WALLA -- It wasn't the first time a diamond of incredible size had been promised, only to find out that perhaps the media should have scratched the surface of the purported enormous rock.

Late last month, online headlines captured the imaginations of stargazers as news broke of the diamond planet.

Some were witty, like CNN's "Diamond planet: A huge girl's best friend discovered in space."

Others sounded a little like Star Wars, such as Bloomberg's "Diamond Planet Found Orbiting Dead Star."

Most news agencies wrote factual sounding headlines, like Reuters' "Astronomers discover planet made of diamond."

In all fairness, many agencies did at least sparingly use words like "suggest" in their articles when it came to reporting about the composition of a planet a mere 4,000 light years away. But those references were miniscule when compared to the galactic giant that became known as the diamond planet.

Whitman College Astronomy Department Chairwoman Andrea Dobson said the media does this a lot in her field.

"Particularly in astronomy, it is so easy for people to take part of the words and the ones they are excited about and run with that," Dobson said.

Nevertheless, the journal Science summed up the diamond planet in simple terms that even a journalist should understand.

Science reported the carbon- and oxygen-rich object is probably crystalline and possibly largely composed of ultra-dense diamond -- the key words being probably and possibly.

If journalists would have been a little more savvy to ask, they would have been told that they were dealing with a distance of thousands of light years and an object that would appear to be almost indistinguishable, if even visible.

Instead, some headlines read, "Diamond Planet Spotted 4,000 Light Years Away."

The problem is there was no spotting, said Dobson, explaining the data was compiled through radio frequency measurements.

The diamond planet is said to be in orbit around a pulsar, a rapidly rotating star that emits pulsating radio frequencies.

As the planet orbited around the pulsar, Dobson said astronomers were able to use "basic Newtonian physics" to make their calculations.

"There is nothing funky about it. You can tell the mass of the objects if you can get the space and speed," she said.

Those measurements, however, are in radio frequencies invisible to the human eye, therefore there was no diamond planet spotted.

Then again, it probably never was a planet.

Most likely, the diamond planet was the remnant of an old star that was caught in an orbit around a high-energy pulsar, and that pulsar robbed it of its atmosphere.

What was left were gases, and astrophysicists determined those gases were most likely super-dense carbon and oxygen.

Not a planet at all, or at least it wasn't formed like planets are normally formed.

It didn't help that the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, which produced the team of scientists who discovered the diamond planet, also produced a graphic that contained a bright-looking star with a halo of energy around it, and a small object very reminiscent of planet caught in orbit.

"I am not nuts about this particular one," Dobson said about the graphic. "I don't think I will use it in my class to explain a pulsar."

Whether or not the stellar companion orbiting the pulsar can be called a planet is perhaps an argument better left to the nomenclature police.

The bottom line for most people is if it really is a diamond planet. And if so, can it be mined?

The answer depends on how deep you dig, said NASA astrophysicist Marc Kuchner, who works at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

He is also one of the leading experts when it comes to the possibilities of diamond planets.

Kuchner expects that the surface of the object is diamond, but it probably isn't solid diamond.

"It seems likely that it is likely the remnant of a red dwarf a white dwarf that is made of carbon and oxygen under high pressure," he explained.

If a person could observe the planet, Kuchner said it would look like a big ball of gas, and under the gas would be a diamond surface. But he wouldn't bet $1,000 -- about what you would pay for a loose solid one-carat diamond -- that it is solid diamond.

"No. And I will tell you why. If you take carbon and increase the pressure you get diamond...keep squeezing (which would happen as pressure increases closer to the center of the mass) and you get BC8. So maybe a layer of diamond and a layer of BC8. And we don't even know what happens if you squeeze BC8," Kuchner said.

Regardless of whether the object is solid or not, or if it should even be called a planet, Kuchner and Dobson were excited about the discovery.

"I think it is pretty cool that we have a companion stellar remnant that has been so totally stripped of its outer layers ... this system could shed some light on how come pulsars spin as fast as they do," Dobson said.

"This is the kind of scientific detective story that we live for. This has just made my day," Kuchner said.

Kuchner also noted that it is important to understand the limits of science, especially in making long-distance observations.

"It's like if you are at the food stand and you hear a big thud. You figure someone dropped a watermelon, but it is not the same as tasting a watermelon. It is an indirect relation," he said.

Alfred Diaz can be reached at alfreddiaz@wwub.com or 526-8325.

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