Diamonds Rain Down on Saturn and Jupiter

By Laura Dattaro
Published: October 9, 2013

An artist's depiction shows a robot mining for diamonds on Saturn. (Michael Carroll)

While we're stuck with water, in much of the the solar system, it's raining diamonds.

For decades, planetary scientists have used pressure and temperature data from Neptune and Uranus to theorize that a layer of diamond bits settled on the planets’ cores (though those findings are still debated). Now, using new data, planetary scientists Mona Delitsky and Kevin Baines have demonstrated that diamonds can remain stable on Saturn and Jupiter, too.

“We know that inside the clouds on Saturn is pure carbon,” Baines, a scientist at University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told “There’s gravity there so obviously those solid carbon particles have to rain down. So we just said when they get down deep enough they should turn into diamonds. It all kind of just fell naturally from thunderstorms on Saturn.”

Storms on Saturn are among the most violent in the solar system, lofting ice 100 miles into the air and shocking the planet with lightning strikes. Saturn’s atmosphere contains a small percentage of methane, whose chemical makeup consists of carbon and hydrogen. When lightning strikes the atmosphere, the carbon and hydrogen separate, leaving isolated carbon atoms to float around and accumulate like flakes of snow in a blizzard.

As the carbon nuggets fall through ever-increasing temperatures and pressures, they form into graphite — the stuff at the tip of your pencil — and pull more carbon atoms from the atmosphere. Eventually, around 6,000 kilometers in, the pressure compresses them into bits of diamond that drift slowly through Saturn’s dense layers.

The diamond maintains its structure until about 36,000 kilometers in. Once it reaches this point, the temperature is hotter than the sun’s surface, and the diamond breaks down. “At that point the diamond turns back into a liquid, mushy kind of substance,” Baines said.

Baines estimates that most of the diamond pieces are smaller than a millimeter across, with about 1 percent reaching a centimeter and a few outliers growing up to 10 centimeters. Overall, rough estimates show that lightning strikes on Saturn generate about 1,000 tons of diamond each year. There could be other sources of carbon, Baines notes, and his calculations don’t take into account these sources.

The same process occurs on Jupiter, but the conditions there are not as favorable for diamond production as on Saturn, Baines said.

In Baines’ view, a future civilization could figure out how to mine the diamond, making it as common as iron and steel are today. In such a future, Earth’s liquid water would be the true valuable commodity. “So it’s raining diamonds on Saturn and, ho hum, it’s raining diamonds everywhere,” Baines said. “What’s the big deal?”

Delitsky and Baines presented their results today at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences.

MORE: Saturn Imagery

Saturn Hurricane

Saturn Hurricane

NASA's Cassini spacecraft snapped this view of a monster hurricane at Saturn's North Pole. The eye of the cyclone is 1,250 miles across. That's 20 times larger than the typical eye of a hurricane here on Earth. The hurricane is believed to have been there for years. (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

  • Saturn Hurricane
  • Peering into the Storm
  • Saturn's North Pole, Wide View
  • Vortex at Saturn's North Pole
  • Raw Image of the Vortex
  • South Pole Vortex from 2008
  • In Saturn's Shadow
  • Saturn's A Ring From the Inside Out

Featured Blogs

Top 10 Weather Videos of 2014

By Dr. Jeff Masters
December 26, 2014

The year 2014 had many spectacular extreme weather events caught on video; the most remarkable were of flash flooding in Serbia and a tornado in Russia. Two artistic videos that were favorites of mine included beautiful time-lapse pieces set to music taken of monsoon thunderstorms in Arizona and the sunset/aurora on top of Mt. Washington, New Hampshire. Here, then, are my choices for 2014's top 10 weather videos:

November 2014 Global Weather Extremes Summary

By Christopher C. Burt
December 18, 2014

November was globally the 7th warmest such on record according to NOAA and 8th according to NASA (see Jeff Master’s blog for more about this). It was a cold month in the U.S. with some phenomenal lake-effect snowstorms. A powerful storm, dubbed a ‘Medicane’ formed in the Mediterranean Sea. Deadly floods occurred in Morocco, Italy, and Switzerland. It was the warmest November on record for Australia, Italy, Austria and much of Southeast Asia.Below are some of the month’s highlights.

Live Blog: Tracking Hurricane Arthur as it Approaches North Carolina Coast

By Shaun Tanner
July 3, 2014

This is a live blog set up to provide the latest coverage on Hurricane Arthur as it threatens the North Carolina Coast. Check back often to see what the latest is with Arthur. The most recent updates are at the top.

Tropical Terminology

By Stu Ostro
June 30, 2014

Here is some basic, fundamental terminology related to tropical cyclones. Rather than a comprehensive and/or technical glossary, this represents the essence of the meaning & importance of some key, frequently used terms.

2013-14 - An Interesting Winter From A to Z

By Tom Niziol
May 15, 2014

It was a very interesting winter across a good part of the nation from the Rockies through the Plains to the Northeast. Let's break down the most significant winter storms on a month by month basis.

What the 5th IPCC Assessment Doesn't Include

By Angela Fritz
September 27, 2013

Melting permafrost has the potential to release an additional 1.5 trillion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, and could increase our global average temperature by 1.5°F in addition to our day-to-day human emissions. However, this effect is not included in the IPCC report issued Friday morning, which means the estimates of how Earth's climate will change are likely on the conservative side.