Diamonds are not forever, but pretty close

Diamonds very slowly degrade into graphite … but the sun, the solar system, and many of the black holes will have died long before then.

When thinking about diamonds we can think of the Shawshank Redemption line that, “Geology is the study of pressure and time. That’s all it takes really… pressure… and time”. Diamonds mined from the Earth are carbon atoms that have been compressed over long periods of time (in the billions of years) under enormous amounts of pressure.

The sands of time

The underground pressure that forms a diamond also holds it together. Once removed from the ground the carbon atoms very, very, slowly rearrange into graphite. Graphite is a more stable arrangement of carbon atoms than a diamond, but “more stable” is extremely relative. Under normal conditions a diamond sitting in your house would take an estimated 10 to the power of 80 years (1080 years) to become graphite, which is:

100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years

One with 80 zeros after it, years. To put that in perspective, the universe is only around 14 billion years old, or 14,000,000,000 years old. A wildly shorter period of time.

The slow death of the universe

So what will life be like when diamonds begin to lose their luster? Nothing lasts forever, including our sun and the universe as we know it. Our sun is scheduled to become a red giant star, expanding in size to engulf Mercury, Venus, and probably Earth, in about 5 billion years. But before that happens the increasing brightness of the sun will kill off all life on Earth in about 1 billion years.

If humanity takes its diamonds aboard a spaceship (with standard Earth like conditions), and sails the universe through space & time, it will theoretically take until the Black Hole Era for the diamonds to become graphite. The Black Hole Era will be from 1043 to approximately 10100 years from now. Leading up to the Black Hole Era the stars will have burned out and the planets (and your diamonds) will have decayed because their protons fell apart. In this time of darkness the black holes of the universe will decay and evaporate into nothingness … and then, finally, your (theoretically still existent) diamonds will have become graphite.

Added info: in 1947 De Beers launched the marketing campaign that “A Diamond Is Forever” (which they used to create our modern idea of the engagement ring). Also learn more about the carat measurement of diamonds (and the other karats, carets, & carrots).

Crash Course Astronomy discusses the long … long, future in store for our universe.

And because it’s an incredible song, and it mentions diamonds (albeit as a metaphor), and it will surely be the soundtrack of our interstellar space travels … Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond.

Our Empty Asteroid Belt

The asteroid belt is mostly empty space.

Between Mars and Jupiter lies the asteroid belt (aka. the “main asteroid belt”, as there are other areas with asteroids in our Solar System). Within this belt there are millions to billions of asteroids made up of rock and metals. Some are tiny particles but the largest is Ceres which is 580 miles in diameter. Large or small they’re hurdling through space at speeds up to 40,000 mph, so if one flew into a space craft it could be disastrous. Fortunately this isn’t really a problem.

Far Out

Unlike asteroid belts in sci-fi movies, our main asteroid belt is not an obstacle course. Most of the asteroid belt is empty space. The four largest asteroids alone make up more than half the total mass of the entire belt and if you combined all of the asteroids together it would still be smaller than our moon. The average distance between asteroids is around 600,000 miles. According to Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, “… if you want to come close enough to an asteroid to make detailed studies of it, you have to aim for one.” The odds of a spacecraft hitting one is less than 1 in a billion. It’s easier to fly through the asteroid belt than it is to actually hit an asteroid.