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Diamonds may be rare on Earth, but surprisingly common in space -- and the super-sensitive infrared eyes of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope are perfect for scouting them, say scientists at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.
Using computer simulations, researchers have developed a strategy for finding diamonds in space that are only a nanometer (a billionth of a meter) in size. These gems are about 25,000 times smaller than a grain of sand, much too small for an engagement ring. But astronomers believe that these tiny particles could provide valuable insights into how carbon-rich molecules, the basis of life on Earth, develop in the cosmos.
Scientists began to seriously ponder the presence of diamonds in space in the l980s, when studies of meteorites that crashed into Earth revealed lots of tiny nanometer-sized diamonds. Astronomers determined that 3 percent of all carbon found in meteorites came in the form of nanodiamonds. If meteorites are a reflection of the dust content in outer space, calculations show that just a gram of dust and gas in a cosmic cloud could contain as many as 10,000 trillion nanodiamonds.
"Space diamonds are formed under very different conditions than diamonds are formed on Earth," says Louis Allamandola, also of Ames.
He notes that diamonds on Earth form under immense pressure, deep inside the planet, where temperatures are also very high. However, space diamonds are found in cold molecular clouds where pressures are billions of times lower and temperatures are below minus 240 degrees Celsius (minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit).
"Now that we know where to look for glowing nanodiamonds, infrared telescopes like Spitzer can help us learn more about their life in space," says Allamandola.
Diamonds In Space