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There's gold in them thar stars: The science of real-life Treasure Planets
First the space race, then a new gold rush.
Treasure Planet, which came out twenty years ago this week, takes Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 novel Treasure Island and sends it into space. Though the film bombed at the box office, it's a masterpiece in its own right, especially for how it puts a spin on the core idea at the center of Stevenson's original book. What if there really was a place out there — an island, perhaps — that was full of riches, and all you needed to do was be the one to find it and you'd be set for life?
Treasure Planet takes Stevenson’s tale from the seas to the stars and trades an island of treasure for an entire planet. The technology is advanced and the characters colorful, but the central idea isn’t a bad one. There are countless worlds out there, maybe even infinite worlds, and our nascent exploration of them has already revealed that some of them are chock full of gold and jewels.
Discovered in 2004, 55 Cancri e, otherwise known as Janssen, orbits a star called Copernicus 41 light years away from Earth. It’s what’s known as a super-Earth, a potentially rocky planet considerably larger than our own.
You might wonder how astronomers are able to figure out the composition of a planet 41 light years away, but scientists are sneaky and they’ve figured out ways to gather clues. In this case, they looked at the planet’s host star. Using light filters, they can figure out what elements the star is made of – that’s the science of spectroscopy – and build from there. The assumption is that stars and their planets came from the same primordial cosmic goop and are made of more or less the same things. Then they estimated the size and mass of the planet to figure out how those elements might interact in a planetary body. Those findings suggest that about one-third of the planet, beneath its violently molten surface, is composed of pure diamond, according to Space. In fact, according to NASA, Janssen might be so overflowing with bling that you can see it glistening from space. The planet is tidally locked, leaving one hemisphere constantly turned away from its star. As silicates in the atmosphere make their way around the cold side, they condense into clouds and reflect light from the global lake of lava below, so that the skies glisten.
It’s difficult to think of a better booby trap for your planet of riches than a literal ocean of lava, so NASA has turned its cosmic sails in search of treasure elsewhere, and they’re using the good ship S.S. JWST. Finding these distant riches relies on some of the same science which revealed the treasures of 55 Cancri e. Planets close to their stars which get very hot, can support vaporized metals and minerals in their atmospheres. That means that some exoplanets have diamonds and jewels in the very air itself. The hope is that the James Webb Space Telescope is powerful enough to reveal those sparkling skies.
To date we’ve discovered approximately 5,000 exoplanets and a nonzero number of them have deeper money bins than Scrooge McDuck. The trouble is that even when we find these places, there’s no hope of ever getting there. At least not without a futuristic cyberpunk portal device. Luckily, astronomers have found a couple of exes on the cosmic treasure map which are a little closer to home.
TREASURE IN OUR BACKYARD
Gold has been a defining force in human history. It is used in jewelry and dentistry and is commonly considered to have inherent monetary value, despite being a soft yellow rock. People have made their fortunes pulling this rock from the ground. Much of the European expansion westward was driven by the pursuit of gold and for a long time, it was the standard to which the entire U.S. economy was tied. Today, gold is worth $1,746 an ounce.
The average person weighs about 60 kilograms so to be worth your weight in gold, you’d be worth about $3.4 million on the open market. That’s just a single person’s weight, but astronomers have found an entire asteroid. Huddled within the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter lies the moderately large rock 16 Psyche. It’s about 120 miles in diameter, that’s about 16 times the size of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs and it’s chock full of the good stuff.
According to Discovery, 16 Psyche has enough gold and other precious metals to give every single living person about a hundred billion dollars. It’s worth about $700 quintillion in total. NASA plans to send a mission to the asteroid in October 2013, not to gather treasure but to study it. That’s because 16 Psyche is weird. Most asteroids are made of rock, ice, or a combination of the two, but 16 Psyche is a massive chunk of metal which suggests it might be the exposed core of a protoplanet that was destroyed during the solar system’s early formation. Landing a probe on the asteroid will give astronomers a chance to peer inside what amounts to the bones of a dead planet.
Any treasure hunters wanting to scour 16 Psych for riches will first need to get there. It orbits at an average distance of 272 million miles away, then you have to gather your chunks of rock and bring them all the way back. There is a closer target, but it might not be very easy to get to.
126.58 million miles away – again, on average – Mercury sits, suspended in a tidally locked orbit around our own Sun and it’s literally littered with diamonds. At least, that’s according to findings presented at the 53rd Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference earlier this year.
The logic behind the model is fairly simple to understand. Diamonds are created when carbon is exposed to intense heat and pressure. On Earth, that mostly happens underground, but Mercury has been subjected to billions of years of asteroid impacts with no real atmosphere to protect it. Thanks to the unique chemistry of Mercury’s crust, lots of carbon shuffled to the surface, in the form of graphite, early in the planet’s development. When an asteroid comes in fast and hot it instantly transforms some of that graphite into diamond and blasts it out of the newly formed crater and onto the surrounding sediment. Repeat this process over four and a half billion years and you end up with a planet covered in diamond dust.
It’s estimated that Mercury might have 17 times as many diamonds as Earth does, though they probably wouldn’t make good jewelry. These sorts of impact-formed jewels are fast and dirty, and they don’t make the sort of large clear crystals we like to adorn ourselves with.
For now, the universe’s treasure hoards are safe from humanity but that might not always be the case. All we really need is the right ship, a good crew, and a reliable map.
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