Science & Technology

Scientists Found Diamond Dust Shimmering Around Distant Stars

Sometimes, studying the stars makes you feel rich. If you're really lucky, you'll even spot elements such as diamonds – although they're a little different than the precious stones on our planet. Scientists recently saw diamond dust shining around young star systems far away from Earth, and that discovery solves a longstanding mystery.

Twinkle Twinkle

Led by Jane Greaves, an astronomer at Cardiff University in Wales, and using the National Science Foundation's Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the Australia Telescope Compact Array, the researchers discovered this diamond dust around star systems anywhere between 463 light-years and 815 light-years from us. (By comparison, the closest star system – Alpha Centauri – is only four light-years away. The universe is big! We need warp drive now.) Their research was published this month in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Are these hidden riches that will allow future space explorers to fly around the universe in diamond-encrusted spaceships, impressing everyone as they zoom by? Unfortunately, the scientists say the nanodiamonds are neither rare nor precious, but they still are interesting because they tell us more about how young star systems are formed. We've also seen these nanodiamonds before — not only in young planetary disks, but also in some meteorites on Earth.

The nanodiamonds are the best explanation for a form of light that scientists see emanating from these three star systems. The light is known as anomalous microwave emission, or AME. That's a mouthful of a phrase, but essentially what it means is the scientists are seeing light caused by nanoparticles — really tiny particles that are hard to see even in microscopes — spinning very quickly.

Shine On, You Crazy AME

Let's back up for a moment to truly understand what is going on. When you look at the sky with your bare eyes, you can see the stars shining in what's known as "visible" light — the light that's visible with human eyes. But stars also shine in many other wavelengths, such as infrared (showing the signature of heat) or microwaves (which in some cases, can show us the origins of the universe.) Telescopes are needed to spot these other wavelengths, as our eyes aren't designed to see them.

Stars are also made up of elements, such as hydrogen, helium, or carbon. We can see the kinds of elements in these stars by breaking down their light signature into a spectrum. (The technical term for this is "spectroscopy.") By better understanding what stars are made of, we can also make assumptions about the composition of their planets.

Here's where the nanodiamonds become important. It's been tough to figure out what causes the chemical "signature" — the spectrum — of AMEs. For 20 years, astronomers thought it might be a form of organics, sometimes known as the building blocks of life since they include life-friendly elements such as carbon. Adding to the confusion, both possibilities — the organics and the AMEs — shine in a similar spectrum of microwave light.

Fortunately, nanodiamonds and organics shine in distinctly different forms of infrared light. After using two powerful observatories designed for infrared observations, scientists concluded the infrared "signature" they see is actually from AMEs. And here's where things get really fun.

The entire universe actually has background radiation in microwave light, which is an "echo" of the Big Bang that formed our universe about 13.8 billion years ago. This background radiation, appropriately enough, is called the cosmic microwave background. It's faint, and really hard to separate from other microwave sources. But now that we've spotted these nanodiamonds and better understand their vibrations in microwave light, the astronomers say we can make better models of the Big Bang. That's because we can better separate the microwave background from other "foreground" sources of microwave light, such as these nanodiamonds.

"It is an exciting result," said co-author Anna Scaife from Manchester University in a statement. "It's not often you find yourself putting new words to famous tunes, but 'AME in the Sky with Diamonds' seems a thoughtful way of summarizing our research."

For more awe-inspiring things captured by telescopes, check out "The Hubble Cosmos: 25 Years of New Vistas in Space" by David H. Devorkin and Robert W. Smith. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Elizabeth Howell June 18, 2018

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