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Diamonds in the sky give new stars their twinkle twinkle

Turns out an unexplained glow in the faraway heavens comes from massive swarms of diamonds in space.

An artist impression of nanoscale diamonds surrounding a young star in the Milky Way.
S. Dagnello, NRAO/AUI/NSF

Some young stars in the Milky Way are blinged out all the way down to the nanoscale, sporting clouds of tiny diamonds so hot they actually glow.

Astronomers have discovered that a faint and until now unexplained microwave light coming from several protoplanetary disks in our galaxy is caused by massive swarms of microscopic diamonds in space.  The disks are basically swarms of dust and debris surrounding a star so young that planets are just beginning to form around it

It turns out that some adolescent star systems like to spend a significant amount of their carbon on that sparkling "ice," which announces their existence to the rest of the galaxy a little ostentatiously.

"In a Sherlock Holmes-like method of eliminating all other causes, we can confidently say the best candidate capable of producing this microwave glow is the presence of nanodiamonds around these newly formed stars," said Jane Greaves, an astronomer at Cardiff University in Wales, in a release. 

Greaves is lead author on a paper describing the findings Monday in Nature Astronomy.

The astronomers used the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) to zoom in on three sources of the mysterious light, known as anomalous microwave emission (AME), that has puzzled scientists for two decades. They found that the light coming from the young stars known as V892 Tau, HD 97048, and MWC 297 match the unique signature of nanodiamonds.

Scientists say the diamonds likely formed during a period when the carbon in the region was superheated. The atoms in the tiny crystals are arranged in such a way that when they spin they emit microwave radiation, which is how they caught the attention of astronomers in the first place.

"It is an exciting result," said co-author Anna Scaife from Manchester University. "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."  

The team estimates that up to 2 percent of the total carbon in the young star systems has been transformed into itty-bitty diamonds. It's as if a cosmic spray has been created, allowing the stars to bathe in a mist of bling.

However, if we were able to harvest this diamond dust, it might not be that impressive. These are the tiniest diamonds in the universe, measuring hundreds of thousands of times smaller than a single grain of sand. That's far smaller than the planet-sized diamond we've found or even the small diamonds that might be floating around in Saturn's atmosphere

It actually is possible to get your hands on some space nanodiamonds, though. The same sort of minuscule crystals have been found in meteorites on Earth.

Pop culture has long dictated that there's another source for diamonds in the sky, but we were unable to contact Lucy to determine if these particular tiny diamonds are the same ones she was spotted with in the sky.

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