Biosignatures & Paleobiology

Illusion and Reality in the Atmospheres of Exoplanets

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
January 4, 2017
Filed under
Illusion and Reality in the Atmospheres of Exoplanets

The atmospheres of exoplanets reveal all their properties beyond mass, radius, and orbit. Based on bulk densities, we know that exoplanets larger than 1.5 Earth radii must have gaseous envelopes, hence atmospheres.

We discuss contemporary techniques for characterization of exoplanetary atmospheres. The measurements are difficult, because – even in current favorable cases – the signals can be as small as 0.001-percent of the host star’s flux.

Consequently, some early results have been illusory, and not confirmed by subsequent investigations. Prominent illusions to date include polarized scattered light, temperature inversions, and the existence of carbon planets. The field moves from the first tentative and often incorrect conclusions, converging to the reality of exoplanetary atmospheres. That reality is revealed using transits for close-in exoplanets, and direct imaging for young or massive exoplanets in distant orbits. Several atomic and molecular constituents have now been robustly detected in exoplanets as small as Neptune.

In our current observations, the effects of clouds and haze appear ubiquitous. Topics at the current frontier include the measurement of heavy element abundances in giant planets, detection of carbon-based molecules, measurement of atmospheric temperature profiles, definition of heat circulation efficiencies for tidally locked planets, and the push to detect and characterize the atmospheres of super-Earths. Future observatories for this quest include the James Webb Space Telescope, and the new generation of Extremely Large Telescopes on the ground. On a more distant horizon, NASA’s concepts for the HabEx and LUVOIR missions could extend the study of exoplanetary atmospheres to true twins of Earth.

Drake Deming, Sara Seager
(Submitted on 2 Jan 2017)

Comments: Invited Review for the 25th Anniversary issue of JGR Planets, in press
Subjects: Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP); Solar and Stellar Astrophysics (astro-ph.SR)
Cite as: arXiv:1701.00493 [astro-ph.EP] (or arXiv:1701.00493v1 [astro-ph.EP] for this version)
Submission history
From: Drake Deming
[v1] Mon, 2 Jan 2017 19:00:06 GMT (1947kb)

Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻