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Saturn's 2-Billion-Year-Old Mystery Solved with New Z Machine

First Posted: Jun 26, 2015 11:24 AM EDT
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Researchers may have solved a two-billion-year mystery when it comes to Saturn. While most planets tend to cool as they get older, Saturn is actually holder than it should be without some additional energy source. Now, scientists may have a way to explain this heat.

In this latest study, the researchers actually ran tests on Sandia's Z machine, the world's most powerful pulsed-power machine. This device sends a huge but precisely tuned sub-microsecond pulse of electricity at a target. The correspondingly strong magnetic field surrounding the pulse was used to shocklessly squeeze deuterium, a heavier variant of hydrogen, at relatively low temperatures.

They actually found that molecular hydrogen, normally an insulator, becomes metallic if squeezed by enough pressure. In theory, a pressured lattice of hydrogen molecules would break up into individual hydrogen atoms, releasing free-floating electrons that could carry a current.

"That long-ago prediction would explain Saturn's temperature because, when hydrogen metallizes and mixes with helium in a dense liquid, it can release helium rain," said Mike Desjarlais, one of the researchers, in a news release.

This helium rain would actually keep Saturn warmer than calculations of planetary age alone would predict. This, in turn, may explain why Saturn is so hot in comparison to other planets.

"The Sandia work shows that dense hydrogen can be metallic, which in turn changes the coexistence of hydrogen and helium in the planet," said Thomas Mattsson, one of the researchers. "the mechanism of helium rain that has been proposed is therefore very plausible, given our results, but the scientific discussion will continue over the next few years in establishing a new consensus."

The findings are published in the journal Science.

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