By, Live Science
The ice giants Uranus and Neptune don’t get nearly enough press; all the attention goes to their larger siblings, mighty Jupiter and magnificent Saturn.
At first glance, Uranus and Neptune are just bland, boring balls of uninteresting molecules. But hiding beneath the outer layers of those worlds, there may be something spectacular: a constant rain of diamonds.
“ice giants” may conjure the image of a Tolkien-esque creature, but it’s the name astronomers use to categorize the outermost planets of the solar system, Uranus and Neptune.
Confusingly, though, the name has nothing to do with ice in the sense you would normally recognize it — as in, say, ice cubes in your drink. The distinction comes from what these planets are made of. The gas giants of the system, Jupiter and Saturn, are made almost entirely of gas: hydrogen and helium. It’s through the rapid accretion of those elements that these huge planets managed to swell to their current size.
In contrast, Uranus and Neptune are made mostly of water, ammonia and methane. Astronomers commonly call these molecules “ices,” but there really isn’t a good reason for it, except that when the planets first formed, those elements were likely in solid form.
Into the (not so) icy depths
Deep beneath the green or blue cloud tops of Uranus and Neptune, there’s a lot of water, ammonia and methane. But these ice giants likely have rocky cores surrounded by elements that are probably compressed into exotic quantum states. At some point, that quantum weirdness transitions into a super-pressurized “soup” that generally thins out the closer you get to the surface.
But truth be told, we don’t know a lot about the interiors of the ice giants. The last time we got close-up data of those two worlds was three decades ago, when Voyager 2 whizzed by in its historic mission.
Since then, Jupiter and Saturn have played host to multiple orbiting probes, yet our views of Uranus and Neptune have been limited to telescope observations.
To try to understand what’s inside those planets, astronomers and planetary scientists have to take that meager data and combine it with laboratory experiments that try to replicate the conditions of those planets’ interiors. Plus, they use some good old-fashioned math — a lot of it. Mathematical modeling helps astronomers understand what’s happening in a given situation based on limited data.
And it’s through that combination of mathematical modeling and laboratory experiments that we realized Uranus and Neptune might have so-called diamond rain.
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