First Super-Earth Atmosphere Observed

Artist’s impression of GJ 1214b
Artist’s impression of GJ 1214b


With the recent milestone of the discovery of the 500th extra solar planet the future of planetary astronomy is promising. As the number of known planets increases so does our knowledge. With the addition of observations of atmospheres of transiting planets, astronomers are gaining a fuller picture of how planets form and live.

Thus far, the observations of atmospheres have been limited to the “Hot-Jupiter” type of planets which often puff up, extending their atmospheres and making them easier to observe. However, a recent set of observations, to be published in the December 2nd issue of Nature, have pushed the lower limit and extended observations of exoplanetary atmospheres to a super-Earth.

The planet in question, GJ 1214b passes in front of its parent star when viewed from Earth allowing for minor eclipses which help astronomers determine features of the system such as its radius and also its density. Earlier work, published in the Astrophysical Journal in August of this year, noted that the planet had an unusually low density (1.87 g/cm3). This ruled out an entirely rocky or iron based planet as well as even a giant snowball composed entirely of water ice. The conclusion was that the planet was surrounded by a thick gaseous atmosphere and the three possible atmospheres were proposed that could satisfy the observations.

The first was that the atmosphere was accreted directly from the protoplanetary nebula during formation. In this instance, the atmosphere would likely retain much of the primordial composition of hydrogen and helium since the mass would be sufficient to keep it from escaping readily. The second was that the planet itself is composed mostly of ices of water, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and other compounds. If such a planet formed, sublimation could result in the formation of an atmosphere that would be unable to escape. Lastly, if a strong component of rocky material formed the planet, outgassings could produce an atmosphere of water steam from geysers, as well as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide and other gasses.

The challenge for following astronomers would be to match the spectra of the atmosphere to one of these models, or possibly a new one. The new team is composed of Jacob Bean, Eliza Kempton, and Derek Homeier, working from the University of Göttingen and the University of California, Santa Cruz. Their spectra of the planet’s atmosphere was largely featureless, showing no strong absorption lines. This largely rules out the first of the cases in which the atmosphere is mostly hydrogen unless there is a thick layer of clouds obscuring the signal from it. However, the team notes that this finding is consistent with an atmosphere composed largely of vapors from ices. The authors are careful to note that “the planet would not harbor any liquid water due to the high temperatures present throughout its atmosphere.”

These findings don’t conclusively demonstrate that nature of the atmosphere, but narrow down the degeneracy to either a steam filled atmosphere or one with thick clouds and haze. Despite not completely narrowing down the possibilities, Bean notes that the application of transit spectroscopy to a super-Earth has “reached a real milestone on the road toward characterizing these worlds.” For further study, Bean suggests that “[f]ollow-up observations in longer wavelength infrared light are now needed to determine which of these atmospheres exists on GJ 1214b.”

Missing Molecules in Exoplanet Atmospheres

Artist's View of Extrasolar Planet HD 189733b


Every day, I wake up and flip through the titles and abstracts of recent articles posted to arXiv. With increasing regularity, papers pop up announcing the discovery of a new extra-solar planet. At this point, I keep scrolling. How many more hot Jupiters do you really want to hear about? If it’s a record setter in some way, I’ll read it. Another way I’ll pay attention is if there’s reports of detections of spectroscopic detection of components of the atmosphere. While a fistful of transiting planets have had spectral lines discovered, they’re still pretty rare and new discoveries will help constrain our understanding of how planets form.

The holy grail in this field would be to discover elemental signatures of molecules that don’t form naturally and are characteristic of life (as we know it). In 2008, a paper announced the first detection of CO2 in an exoplanet atmosphere (that of HD 189733b), which, although not exclusively, is one of the tracer molecules for life. While HD 189733b isn’t a candidate for searches for ET, it was still a notable first.

Then again, perhaps not. A new study casts doubt on the discovery as well as the report of various molecules in the atmospheres of another exoplanet.

Thus far there have been two methods by which astronomers have attempted to identify molecular species in the atmosphere of exoplanets. The first is by using starlight, filtered by the planet’s atmosphere to search for spectral lines that are only present during transit. The difficulty with this method is that, spreading the light out to detect the spectra weakens the signal, sometimes down to the very point that it’s lost in systematic noise from the telescope itself. The alternative is to use photometric observations, which look at the change in light in different color ranges, to characterize the molecules. Since the ranges are all lumped together, this can improve the signal, but this is a relatively new technique and statistical methodology for this technique is still shaky. Additionally, since only one filter can be used at a time, the observations must generally be taken on different transits, which allow the characteristics of the star to change due to star spots.

The 2008 study by Swain et al. that announced the presence of CO2 used the first of these methods. Their trouble started the following year when a followup study by Sing et al. failed to reproduce the results. In their paper, Sing’s team stated,”Either the planet’s transmission spectrum is variable, or residual systematic errors still plague the edges of the Swain et al. spectrum.”

The new study, by Gibson, Pont, and Aigrain (working from the Universities of Oxford and Exeter) suggests that the claims of Swain’s team were a result of the latter. They suggest that the signal is swamped with more noise than Swain et al. accounted for. This noise comes from the telescope itself (in this case Hubble since these observations would need to be made out of Earth’s atmosphere which would add its own spectral signature). Specifically, they report that since there’s changes in the state of the detector itself that are often hard to identify and correct for, Swain’s team underestimated the error, leading to a false positive. Gibson’s team was able to reproduce the results using Swain’s method, but when they applied a more complete method which didn’t assume that the detector could be calibrated so easily by using observations of the star outside the transit and on different Hubble orbits, the estimation of the errors increased significantly, swamping the signal Swain claimed to have observed.

Gibson’s team also reviewed the case of detections of molecules in the atmosphere of an extra solar planet around XO-1 (on which Tinetti et al. reported to have found methane, water, and CO2). In both cases, they again find that detections of were overstated and the ability to tease signal from the data was dependent on questionable methods.

This week seems to be a bad week for those hoping to find life on extra-solar planets. With this article casting doubt on our ability to detect molecules in distant atmospheres and the recent caution on the detection of Gliese 581g, one might worry about our ability to explore these new frontiers, but what this really underscores is the need to refine our techniques and keep taking deeper looks. This has been a frank reassessment of the current state of knowledge, but does not in any way claim to limit our future discoveries. Additionally, this is how science works; scientists review each others data and conclusions. So, looking on the bright side, science works, even if it’s not exactly telling us what we’d like to hear.

Extrasolar Volcanoes May Soon be Detectable


We’ve all seen pictures of erupting terrestrial volcanoes from space, and even eruptions on Jupiter’s moon Io in the outer solar system, but would it be possible to detect an erupting volcano on an exoplanet? Astronomers say the answer is yes! (with a few caveats)

It’s going to be decades before telescopes will be able to resolve even the crudest surface features of rocky extrasolar planets, so don’t hold your breath for stunning photos of alien volcanoes outside our solar system. But astronomers have already been able to use spectroscopy to detect the composition of exoplanet atmospheres, and a group of theorists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics think a similar technique could detect the atmospheric signature of exo-eruptions.

By collecting spectra right before and right after the planet goes behind its star, astronomers can subtract out the star’s spectrum and isolate the signal from the planet’s atmosphere. Once this is done, they can look for evidence of molecules common in volcanic eruptions. Models suggest that sulfur dioxide is the best candidate for detection because volcanoes produce it in huge quantities and it lasts in a planet’s atmosphere for a long time.

Still, it won’t be easy.

“You would need something truly earthshaking, an eruption that dumped a lot of gases into the atmosphere,” said Smithsonian astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger. “Using the James Webb Space Telescope, we could spot an eruption 10 to 100 times the size of Pinatubo for the closest stars,” she added.

To be detected, exoplanet eruptions would have to be 10 to 100 times larger than the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo shown here. Image source: USGS

In 1991 Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines belched 17 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. Volcanic eruptions are ranked using the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI). Pinatubo ranked ‘colossal’ (VEI of 6) and the largest eruption in recorded history was the ‘super-colossal’ Tambora event in 1815. With a VEI of 7 it was about 10 times as large as Pinatubo. Even larger eruptions (more than 100 times larger than Pinatubo) on Earth are not unheard of: geologic evidence suggests that there have been 47 such eruptions in the past 36 million years, including the eruption of the Yellowstone caldera about 600,000 years ago.

The best candidates for detecting extrasolar volcanoes are super-earths orbiting nearby, dim stars, but the Kaltenegger and her colleagues found that volcanic gases on any earth-like planet up to 30 light years away might be detectable. Now they just have to wait until the James Webb Space Telescope is launched 2014 to test their prediction.

Astronomy Without A Telescope – Exoplanet Weather Report

Trying to determine the behaviour of the atmosphere of a hot Jupiter – a gas giant so close to its star that it is either tidally locked or caught in a slow orbital resonance – is tricky, given that we have no precedents here in our solar system. But it is possible to explore in detail what exoplanet atmospheres might be like, based on solar system examples.

For example, there’s Venus – which, although not tidally locked, has such a slow rotation (once every 243 Earth days) that its dynamics virtually match those of a tidally locked planet.

Interestingly, Venus’ upper atmosphere super-rotates, meaning it circulates in the same direction as the planet’s rotation but much faster – in Venus’ case, at sixty times the speed of the planet’s rotation. It’s likely that these winds are driven by the large temperature gradient that exists between the day and night sides of the planet.

Conversely Earth, with its rapid rotation, has much less potential difference between its day and night side temperatures – so that its weather systems are more strongly influenced by the actual rotation of the planet and also by the temperature gradient between equator and pole. The nett result is lots of circular weather systems with their direction determined by the Coriolis effect – counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern.

And of course we do have gas giants, even if they aren’t hot. Being so far from the Sun, dayside-nightside and equator-pole temperature gradients have little influence on our gas giants’ atmospheric circulation. The most significant issues are each planet’s rotation speed and each planet’s size.

Jupiter and Saturn’s larger radius exceeds their Rhines scale forcing the bulk flow of their atmospheres to break up into distinct bands with turbulent eddies between them. However, the smaller radius of Uranus and Neptune allows the bulk of the atmosphere to circulate as an unbroken whole, only breaking into two smaller bands at each pole.

The 'Rhines Scale' applied to solar system gas giants predicts that atmospheric circulation on large radius planets (Jupiter and Saturn) fragments into distinct bands, but doesn't on smaller radius planets (Uranus and Neptune). Credit: Showman et al 2010.

Partly because it’s cooler, but mostly because it’s smaller, Neptune’s atmosphere has much less turbulent flow than Jupiter – which goes some way to explaining why it has the fastest stratospheric wind speeds in the solar system.

All these factors are useful in trying to determine how the atmosphere of a hot Jupiter might behave. Being so close to their star, it’s likely these planets will be partly or fully tidally locked – so the main driver for atmospheric circulation will be, like Venus, the dayside-nightside temperature gradient . So a super-rotating stratosphere, circulating many times faster than the inner parts of the planet, is plausible.

From there, modelling suggests that the combination of fast wind speed and slow rotation means the Rhines scale will become bigger than a Jupiter-sized planetary radius , so there will be less turbulent flow and the upper atmosphere might circulate as one, without breaking up into the multiple bands we see on Jupiter.

Anyway, that’s my take on an interesting 50 page arXiv article with lots of (to me) bewildering formulae, but also lots of comprehensible narrative and diagrams. The article consolidates current thinking and lays a sound foundation for making sense of future observational data – both hallmarks of a nicely crafted ‘lit review’.