The 'Diamond asteroid' points to a long-lost planet

An artist's illustration of a protoplanet

An asteroid that slammed into the Sudan desert on October 7, 2008, shot out lots of little space rocks holding a precious secret: diamonds that likely formed billions of years ago inside the embryo of a now-decimated planet.

Debris from a meteorite that plunged to Earth in 2008 offers strong evidence of a lost planet that once drifted through our solar system, a new study has found.

That means that the diamonds had to be formed toward the centre of an object large enough to produce the requisite amount of pressure and heat.

"It is the first time that we found inclusions in extraterrestrial diamonds", Dr Nabiei said.

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"The analysis of the data showed that the diamonds had chromite, phosphate, and iron-nickel sulfides embedded in them - what scientists refer to as "inclusions", EPFL explained in a news release. The meteorite is called Almahata Sitta.

A transmission electron microscopy (TEM) image of a deformed diamond matrix in Almahata Sitta MS-170 meteorite. But at first, the origins of the diamonds eluded researchers. They suspected that these crystals may have formed the same way diamonds do on Earth - under the unbelievably high temperatures and pressures that exist in the interior of a planet - and only afterward were broken by a shock wave into smaller fragments. They could only have formed under incredible pressure - the equivalent of diving 600 kilometers into Earth's interior or attempting to hold up 100,000 tons with your bare hands. It turned out to be a rare type of meteorite called ureilite, which has an unusual composition compared to other stony meteorites - it contains a lot of carbon in the form of nanodiamonds. Some of these bodies were almost as big as Mars and one of them, dubbed Theia, collided with Earth to throw our moon into orbit. "I thought, if there were diamonds forming inside a planet, inside a parent body, they could have trapped some material from their environment", Farhang Nabiei, materials scientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and lead author of the study, tells Kaplan. The team's result suggests that the diamonds in Almahata Sitta formed in a Mercury- to Mars-sized protoplanet. Meenakshi Wadhwa, a meteorite researcher at Arizona State University, who was not involved in the latest study, said, "What makes this study so exciting is that it is direct evidence from an actual rock that there was a large protoplanetary body that is no longer around".

Asimow said this all seems plausible, based not only on the work outlined in the paper but also considering what scientists believe occurred at the dawn of the solar system.

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