Thursday, June 20, 2013

1306.4329 (Jonathan J. Fortney et al.)

A Framework for Characterizing the Atmospheres of Low-Mass Low-Density Transiting Planets    [PDF]

Jonathan J. Fortney, Christoph Mordasini, Nadine Nettelmann, Eliza M. -R. Kempton, Thomas P. Greene, Kevin Zahnle
We perform modeling investigations to aid in understanding the atmospheres and composition of small planets of ~2-4 Earth radii, which are now known to be common in our galaxy. GJ 1214b is a well studied example whose atmospheric transmission spectrum has been observed by many investigators. Here we take a step back from GJ 1214b to investigate the role that planetary mass, composition, and temperature play in impacting the transmission spectra of these low-mass low-density (LMLD) planets. Under the assumption that these planets accrete modest hydrogen-dominated atmospheres and planetesimals, we use population synthesis models to show that predicted metal enrichments of the H/He envelope are high, with metal mass fraction Z_env values commonly 0.6 to 0.9, or ~100 to 400+ times solar. The high mean molecular weight of such atmospheres (\mu ~ 5-12) would naturally help to flatten the transmission spectrum of most LMLD planets. The high metal abundance would also provide significant condensible material for cloud formation. It is known that the H/He abundance in Uranus and Neptune decreases with depth, and we show that atmospheric evaporation of LMLD planets could expose atmospheric layers with gradually higher Z_env. However, values of Z_env close to solar composition can also arise, so diversity should be expected. Photochemically produced hazes, potentially due to methane photolysis, are another possibility for obscuring transmission spectra. Such hazes may not form above T_eq of ~900-1100 K, which is testable if such warm, otherwise low mean molecular weight atmospheres are stable against atmospheric evaporation. We find that available transmission data are consistent with relatively high mean molecular weight atmospheres for GJ 1214b and "warm Neptune" GJ 436b. We examine future prospects for characterizing GJ 1214b with Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope.
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