Solar System Resources — Diamonds


Diamonds have been the subject of human fascination for thousands of years, but it was only recently (in the 1930s) that they become synonymous with high status and romance. The market for diamonds is massive and only growing faster. Demand is outstripping supply. Does this make diamonds a potentially valuable target for New Space ventures?

The most likely diamonds in the Solar System to be found first and commercialised are on Mars. Mars has a similar geological history to Earth, which makes diamond mining operations both possible and familiar (relatively). The profitability of Mars diamond mining is still uncertain.

But Mars is far from the only place that diamonds may be found off Earth.

Location of DiamondsLikelihood of Diamond PresenceEase of ExtractionTimescale to Location AccessIMOCS Score*
MarsHighDoableYears to Decades0
Luna (Our Moon)MediumUnknownYears0
VenusUnknownExtremely DifficultMany Decades0
AsteroidsConfirmedEasyYears to Decades0
Neptune and UranusHighExtremely DifficultMany Decades1
Saturn and JupiterHighExtremely DifficultMany Decades1
The Other MoonsUnknownUnknownMany Decades0
Note: Ease of Extraction refers to the technology we can assume we’ll have when we reach the target location.

*This table uses IMOCS, a measure of new market development. Click here for a concise understanding of IMOCS.

Analysis

Diamonds are small and valuable. Because of this, if diamonds are needed in space, for example for manufacturing, it would likely make sense to ship them from Earth. Launch costs matter less if what is being launched costs a fortune.

Even synthetic diamonds used in industrial applications have a value that makes it worthwhile to launch them to orbit if needed (although the cost of synthetic diamonds is going down rapidly as technology improves.)

On the other hand, the demand for natural diamonds on Earth is steadily increasing and isn’t expected to slow down any time soon. This growth is largely fueled by increased demand from India and China.

This means that the likely business model for diamonds mined in space would be for shipping back to Earth for use in the jewellery business.

A possible benefit of in-space derived diamonds (and gemstones in general), is their potential to attract premium prices based on their source of origin. Unlike rare-earths or valuable metals used in industry, consumers of diamonds may well be willing to pay a premium for a diamond sourced off-Earth.

Having said this, it is unlikely large investments into space diamonds can be made any time soon.

Mars

The best candidate for off-earth diamond mining is Mars, which has a similar geological history to Earth.

We do not yet have confirmation of diamonds on Mars, but many experts consider it highly likely that they will be there. Whether those diamonds are accessible is more debated, but the volcanic nature of Mars’ geology makes it plausible.

Mars is in the cross-hairs of the world’s governments to explore and some efforts—most notably by SpaceX—may see humans there within the decade.

The initial efforts of colonists will almost certainly be on survival rather than exploitation.

Therefore, even the most optimistic estimates for off-Earth diamond mining as a viable venture wouldn’t get going for maybe fifteen years.

On the other hand, once the opportunity is perceived to be opening, it’s highly likely we’ll see a rush of investment into multiple companies all competing with each other to locate, develop, and ship Mars diamonds back home (depending on Earth’s diamond market at the time).

The Moon (Luna)

There may be diamonds on the moon, but we would have to go back there and do more detailed surveys to find out. Likewise, if there are diamonds on the moon, we would still need them to be readily accessible. With many unknowns about our nearest neighbours’ geological past, this is no sure thing.

The samples of moon rock that we’ve brought back from the Apollo missions show a carbon content 1/10th that of Earth’s crust. We also know that the moon has been volcanically active in the past, and is most likely still molten under the surface — all good signs for diamond formation. This is, however, mostly all we know about the potential for diamonds on the moon.

Venus

We currently have no evidence as to the existence of diamonds on Venus. Unfortunately, unlike the other planets and moons, it’s also unlikely we’ll find out any time soon. If diamonds exist on Venus, extracting them would be extremely difficult.

Venus may be one of the more violently active volcanic places in the Solar System.

It is also, unfortunately, one of the most inhospitable.

The surface of Venus is so hot that NASA has looked into the possibility of rovers that operate only through mechanics with no electronics at all.

These difficulties mean that the world’s focus for manned and robotic spaceflight is focused on easier to work with targets.

The one positive to Venus is that a complete lack of oxygen in the atmosphere means that if diamonds have been brought up from the planet’s depths, they’re probably still there.

Asteroids

Diamonds have been found in Asteroids that have fallen to Earth (meteorites) in very small quantities. The diamond recently found on the Almahata Sitta meteorites that fell in the Sudanese desert (found in 2009) contained the largest such findings yet, but even these were only the width of a human hair.

Asteroids are some of the most highly desirable targets for mining, owing to some of their low delta-V access and return requirements.

Unfortunately, while we know certain types of asteroids can be rich in many very valuable metals, as well as more common base metals, the diamonds we’ve as yet found are far too small to be commercially worthwhile (except for research purposes).

An added problem with mining diamonds from asteroids is that the types of asteroids that businesses are generally most interested in—high metal content types—are not the same ones that are rich in carbon.

Therefore, even if larger diamonds did exist in carbon-rich asteroids, the mining operations would likely not find them as they would likely all be focused on M-type examples.

Neptune and Uranus

Current academic thinking suggests that diamonds may exist in the middle ‘ice’ layer of Uranus and Neptune. The research also suggests that if they do exist, then they would be in extremely large quantities compared to anything we know on Earth.

Accessing these diamonds, however, is far beyond the reach of our current technology and should not be considered a serious investment proposition.

The paper analysing these possibilities was titled ‘The ice layer in Uranus and Neptune—Diamonds in the Sky?’ and was written by Marvin Ross, of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in 1981.

Saturn and Jupiter

Saturn and Jupiter are also likely to contain diamonds, according to some research. However, unlike Neptune and Uranus, Saturn and Jupiter’s diamonds would fall from the sky as rain — or more accurately, hail.

Again, accessing the diamonds of Saturn and Jupiter is far beyond the reach of current technology. And likewise, any investment proposals into this proposition should be met with some caution.

The possibility of diamond hail was first proposed by Mona Delitsky of California Specialty Engineering and Kevin Baines of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and reported on in Nature in 2013.

The Other Moons

We still need to do far more research and surveying to determine the likelihood of diamonds existing on the many moons of our Solar System.

What we can do, is note the moons that are known to have volcanic activity, either presently, or in the past.

These moons are:

  • Ganymede
  • Io
  • Europa
  • Triton
  • Enceladus

More examples will likely be discovered in time.


Article last revised — August 2021 | Article next review — August 2022

James Coombs

James is a space and business enthusiast of fifteen years. Marrying these two elements makes him unreasonably happy. James also enjoys working out, adventure, and writing fiction that doesn't take itself too seriously.

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