Sandia's Z machine helps solve Saturn's 2-billion-year age gap

July 14, 2015 by Darrick Hurst, Sandia National Laboratories
Results from Sandia National Laboratories’ Z machine provides hard data for an 85-year-old theory that could correct mistaken estimates of the planet Saturn’s age. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Planets tend to cool as they get older, but Saturn is hotter than astrophysicists say it should be without some additional energy source.

The unexplained heat has caused a two-billion-year discrepancy for computer models estimating Saturn's age. "Models that correctly predict Jupiter to be 4.5 billion years old find Saturn to be only 2.5 billion years old," says Thomas Mattsson, manager of the high-energy-density physics theory group at DOE's Sandia National Laboratories.

Experiments at Sandia's Z machine may help solve that problem when they verified an 80-year-old untested proposition that , normally an insulator, becomes metallic if squeezed by enough pressure. At that point, a lattice of hydrogen molecules would break up into individual hydrogen atoms, releasing free-floating electrons that could carry a current, physicists Eugene Wigner and Hilliard Huntington predicted in 1935.

"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 Sandia researcher Mike Desjarlais. Helium rain is an energy source that can alter the evolution of a planet.

"Essentially, helium rain would keep Saturn warmer than calculations of planetary age alone would predict," said Sandia researcher Marcus Knudson.

Knudson and Desjarlais are the lead authors of a June 26 Science article, "Direct observation of an abrupt insulator–to-metal transition in dense liquid deuterium."

This proposed density-driven hydrogen transition had never been physically observed until Sandia's recent experiments.

The tests ran on Sandia's Z machine, the world's most powerful pulsed-power machine, which 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. Previous experiments elsewhere used gas guns to shock the gas. This increased its pressure but at the same time raised its temperature beyond the range of interest for the density-driven phase transition.

"We started at 20 Kelvin, where hydrogen is a liquid, and sent a few hundred kilobar shock—a tiny flyer plate pushed by Z's magnetic field into the hydrogen—to warm the liquid," said Knudson. "Then we used Z's to further compress the hydrogen shocklessly, which kept it right above the liquid-solid line at about 1,000 K." (One thousand K is approximately 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.)

Said Desjarlais, "When the liquid was compressed to over 12 times its starting density, we saw the signs that it became atomic rather than molecular. The transition, at three megabars of pressure, gives theorists a solid figure to use in their calculations and helps identify the best theoretical framework for modeling these extreme conditions."

The results need to be plugged into astrophysical models to see whether the now-confirmed transition to atomic hydrogen significantly decreases the age gap between the two huge planets.

"The Sandia work shows that dense hydrogen can be metallic, which in turn changes the coexistence of hydrogen and helium in the planet," says Mattsson. "The mechanism of 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."

Interestingly, the determination that a metallic phase was reached was made optically. "There's too much electrical noise in Z to make an electrical test, though we plan to directly measure current down the road," Knudson said.

Optical tests rely on the transition from zero reflectivity (insulators) to the reflectivity achieved by metals.

"The only way you get reflectivity is when a material is metallic," Knudson said. Reflectivity was tested across the visible spectrum because the experiment itself produced light. "We collected it, put it through a spectrometer to disperse it and passed it into a camera to observe it," he said.

When the insulator reached enough pressure to become metallized, the researchers observed 45 percent reflectivity, an excellent agreement with theoretical calculations, said Desjarlais.

"This is a very nice merging of theory and experiment," he said. "We threw all our computational tools—which are significant—at providing verification and interpretation of the complex experimental observations at Z."

The work was done in collaboration with professor Ronald Redmer's research group at University of Rostock in Germany and is a part of the Z Fundamental Science Program at Sandia. The multidisciplinary team included researchers with expertise in innovative experimental design, diagnostics and pulse-shaping capabilities, matched with theoretical analysis using methods based on quantum mechanics.

Other authors besides Knudson, Desjarlais and Mattsson include Redmer and Andreas Becker at University of Rostock and Ray Lemke, Kyle Cochrane, Mark Savage, and Dave Bliss at Sandia.

Explore further: Researchers successfully transform liquid deuterium into a metal

Related Stories

Ice giant planets have more water volume than believed

March 15, 2012

( -- The idea of compressing water is foreign to our daily experience. Nevertheless, an accurate estimate of water’s shrinking volume under the huge gravitational pressures of  large planets is essential ...

Helium-shrouded planets may be common in our galaxy

June 11, 2015

They wouldn't float like balloons or give you the chance to talk in high, squeaky voices, but planets with helium skies may constitute an exotic planetary class in our Milky Way galaxy. Researchers using data from NASA's ...

Recommended for you

Coffee-based colloids for direct solar absorption

March 22, 2019

Solar energy is one of the most promising resources to help reduce fossil fuel consumption and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to power a sustainable future. Devices presently in use to convert solar energy into thermal ...

Physicists reveal why matter dominates universe

March 21, 2019

Physicists in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University have confirmed that matter and antimatter decay differently for elementary particles containing charmed quarks.

ATLAS experiment observes light scattering off light

March 20, 2019

Light-by-light scattering is a very rare phenomenon in which two photons interact, producing another pair of photons. This process was among the earliest predictions of quantum electrodynamics (QED), the quantum theory of ...

How heavy elements come about in the universe

March 19, 2019

Heavy elements are produced during stellar explosion or on the surfaces of neutron stars through the capture of hydrogen nuclei (protons). This occurs at extremely high temperatures, but at relatively low energies. An international ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (2) Jul 14, 2015
You know, in 4 billion years time a lot of weird and random stuff can happen in the solar system. Maybe Saturn was struck by a planetesmal relatively recently, re-heating it somewhat so that it appears younger than it otherwise would be.

Look at all the ice moons in the solar system, and the TNO objects. If one of those hit Saturn it would hardly make a difference gravitationally, but the energy released in the collision would be colossal. It would make the shoemaker-levy 9 collision with Jupiter look like nothing at all, and it would provide an enormous amount of re-heating to throw off your age calculations.
Enthusiastic Fool
3.7 / 5 (6) Jul 17, 2015
@ Returners

Call me incredulous but it seems like it would take an awful lot of energy to reheat the 5.6846×10^26 kg of Saturn to the point where current day it radiates 2.5 times the thermal energy into space that it receives from the Sun. If the latent heat can be explained and modeled by internal mechanisms I don't know why we should posit a massive collision that left no other evidence and doesn't account for some other additional data. Shoemaker-Levy 9 did cause elevated local and global Jovian temperatures but those lasted less than a month.

Saturn's rings are thought to be a couple 100M years old so if it happened in that time it wasn't gravitationally significant enough to disrupt the ring system at all despite the small moons that constantly perturb and shepherd them. The further back you go the more significant the object already massive object would have to be.
5 / 5 (1) Jul 18, 2015
brown dwarf?
5 / 5 (1) Jul 18, 2015
Firstly I'm rather surprised the author feels the need to explain how many degrees F a temperature of 1000K is although this is no doubt for the benefit of any Americans reading :)

Secondly it would help if he'd got it right. 1000K is about 1300F not 1800F. You can't just multiply by 9 and divide by 5 like with Centigrade. It helps to subtract the 273.15 degrees above absolute zero first!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.