Habitable Zones & Global Climate

Detecting and Characterizing Water Vapor in the Atmospheres of Earth Analogs through Observation of the 0.94 Micron Feature in Reflected Light

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
November 21, 2019
Filed under
Detecting and Characterizing Water Vapor in the Atmospheres of Earth Analogs through Observation of the 0.94 Micron Feature in Reflected Light
The optical planet-to-star flux ratio spectrum of an Earth-like planet, with a spectral resolution of 140, as generated by the forward model used in this paper, with major features highlighted. Of interest to this work is the H2O absorption feature at 0.94 µm. Note also the lack of major features from non-water sources in the vicinity of this feature.

The characterization of rocky, Earth-like planets is an important goal for future large ground- and space-based telescopes.

In support of developing an efficient observational strategy, we have applied Bayesian statistical inference to interpret the albedo spectrum of cloudy true-Earth analogs that include a diverse spread in their atmospheric water vapor mixing ratios. We focus on detecting water-bearing worlds by characterizing their atmospheric water vapor content via the strong 0.94μm H2O absorption feature, with several observational configurations. Water vapor is an essential signpost when assessing planetary habitability, and determining its presence is important in vetting whether planets are suitable for hosting life.

We find that R=140 spectroscopy of the absorption feature combined with a same-phase green optical photometric point at 0.525−0.575μm is capable of distinguishing worlds with less than 0.1× Earth-like water vapor levels from worlds with 1× Earth-like levels or greater at a signal-to-noise ratio of 5 or better with 2σ confidence. This configuration can differentiate between 0.01× and 0.1× Earth-like levels when the signal-to-noise ratio is 10 or better at the same confidence.

However, strong constraints on the water vapor mixing ratio remained elusive with this configuration even at signal-to-noise of 15. We find that adding the same-phase optical photometric point does not significantly help characterize the H2O mixing ratio, but does enable an upper limit on atmospheric ozone levels. Finally, we find that a 0.94μm photometric point, instead of spectroscopy, combined with the green-optical point, fails to produce meaningful information about atmospheric water content.

Adam J. R. W. Smith, Y. Katherina Feng, Jonathan J. Fortney, Tyler D. Robinson, Mark S. Marley, Roxana E. Lupu, Nikole K. Lewis
(Submitted on 20 Nov 2019)

Comments: Accepted to AJ
Subjects: Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP)
Cite as: arXiv:1911.09211 [astro-ph.EP] (or arXiv:1911.09211v1 [astro-ph.EP] for this version)
Submission history
From: Jonathan J. Fortney
[v1] Wed, 20 Nov 2019 23:13:44 UTC (437 KB)

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