Probing Exoplanet Atmospheric Properties from Phase Variations and Polarization
Laura Mayorga, NMSU
The study of exoplanets is evolving past simple transit and Doppler method discovery and characterization. One of the many goals of the upcoming mission WFIRST-AFTA is to directly image giant exoplanets with a coronagraph. We undertake a study to determine the types of exoplanets that missions such as WFIRST will encounter and what instruments these missions require to best characterize giant planet atmospheres. We will first complete a benchmark study of how Jupiter reflects and scatters light as a function of phase angle. We will use Cassini flyby data from late 2000 to measure Jupiter’s phase curve, spherical albedo, and degree of polarization. Using Jupiter as a comparison, we will then study a sample of exoplanet atmosphere models generated to explore the atmospheric parameter space of giant planets and estimate what WFIRST might observe. Our study will provide valuable refinements to Jupiter-like models of planet evolution and atmospheric composition. We will also help inform future missions of what instruments are needed to characterize similar planets and what science goals will further our knowledge of giant worlds in our universe.
Diagnosing the SEEDS of Planet Formation
John Wisniewski, University of Oklahoma
Circumstellar disks provide a useful astrophysical diagnostic of the formation and early evolution of exoplanets. It is commonly believed that young protoplanetary disks serve as the birthplace of planets, while older debris disks can provide insight into the architecture of exoplanetary systems. In this talk, I will discuss how one can use high contrast imaging techniques to spatially resolve nearby circumstellar disk systems, and how this imagery can be used to search for evidence of recently formed planetary bodies. I will focus on results from the Strategic Exploration of Exoplanets and Disks with Subaru (SEEDS) project, as well as some ongoing follow-up work.
On the Edge: Exoplanets with Orbital Periods Shorter Than a Peter Jackson Movie
Brian Jackson, Boise State Univeristy
From wispy gas giants to tiny rocky bodies, exoplanets with orbital periods of several days and less challenge theories of planet formation and evolution. Recent searches have found small rocky planets with orbits reaching almost down to their host stars’ surfaces, including an iron-rich Mars-sized body with an orbital period of only four hours. So close to their host stars that some of them are actively disintegrating, these objects’ origins remain unclear, and even formation models that allow significant migration have trouble accounting for their very short periods. Some are members of multi-planet system and may have been driven inward via secular excitation and tidal damping by their sibling planets. Others may be the fossil cores of former gas giants whose atmospheres were stripped by tides.
In this presentation, I’ll discuss the work of our Short-Period Planets Group (SuPerPiG), focused on finding and understanding this surprising new class of exoplanets. We are sifting data from the reincarnated Kepler Mission, K2, to search for additional short-period planets and have found several new candidates. We are also modeling the tidal decay and disruption of close-in gaseous planets to determine how we could identify their remnants, and preliminary results suggest the cores have a distinctive mass-period relationship that may be apparent in the observed population. Whatever their origins, short-period planets are particularly amenable to discovery and detailed follow-up by ongoing and future surveys, including the TESS mission.
Characterization of Biosignatures within Geologic Samples Analyzed using a Suite of in situ Techniques
Kyle Uckert, NMSU
I investigated the biosignature detection capabilities of several in situ techniques to evaluate their potential to
detect the presence of extant or extinct life on other planetary surfaces. These instruments included: a laser desorption
time-of- flight mass spectrometer (LD-TOF-MS), an acousto-optic tunable filter (AOTF) infrared (IR) point spectrometer, a
laser-induced breakdown spectrometer (LIBS), X-ray diffraction (XRD)/X-ray fluorescence (XRF), and scanning electron
microscopy (SEM)/energy dispersive X-Ray spectroscopy (EDS). I measured the IR reflectance spectra of several speleothems
in caves in situ to detect the presence of biomineralization. Microorganisms (such as those that may exist on other solar
system bodies) mediate redox reactions to obtain energy for growth and reproduction, producing minerals such as
carbonates, metal oxides, and sulfates as waste products. Microbes occasionally become entombed in their mineral
excrement, essentially acting as a nucleation site for further crystal growth. This process produces minerals with a
crystal lattice distinct from geologic precipitation, detectable with IR reflectance spectroscopy. Using a suite of
samples collected from three subterranean environments, along with statistical analyses including principal component
analysis, I measured subsurface biosignatures associated with these biomineralization effects, including the presence of
trace elements, morphological characteristics, organic molecules, and amorphous crystal structures.
I also explored the optimization of a two-step LD-TOF-MS (L2MS) for the detection of organic molecules and other
biosignatures. I focused my efforts on characterizing the L2MS desorption IR laser wavelength dependence on organic
detection sensitivity in an effort to optimize the detection of high mass (≤100 Da) organic peaks. I analyzed samples
with an IR reflectance spectrometer and an L2MS with a tunable desorption IR laser whose wavelength range (2.7 – 3.45
microns) overlaps that of our IR spectrometer (1.6 – 3.6 microns), and discovered a IR resonance enhancement effect. A
correlation between the maximum IR absorption of organic functional group and mineral vibrational transitions – inferred
from the IR spectrum – and the optimal IR laser configuration for organic detection using L2MS indicates that IR
spectroscopy may be used to inform the optimal L2MS IR laser wavelength for organic detection. This work suggests that a
suite of instruments, particularly LD-TOF-MS and AOTF IR spectroscopy, has strong biosignature detection potential on a
future robotic platform for investigations of other planetary surfaces or subsurfaces.
Star formation in the vicinity of the supermassive black hole at the Galactic Centre
Dr. Mark Wardle, Macquarie University
The disruptive tidal field near supermassive black holes overcomes the self-gravity of objects that are less dense than the Roche density. This was once expected to suppress star formation within several parsecs of Sgr A*, the four million solar mass black hole at the centre of the Galaxy. It has since become apparent that things are not this simple: Sgr A* is surrounded by a sub-parsec-scale orbiting disk of massive stars, indicating a star formation event occurred a few million years ago. And on parsec scales, star formation seems to be happening now: there are proplyd candidates and protostellar outflow candidates, as well as methanol and water masers that in the galactic disk would be regarded as sure-fire signatures of star formation. In this talk, I shall consider how star formation can occur so close to Sgr A*.
The stellar disk may be created through the partial capture of a molecular cloud as it swept through the inner few parsecs of the galaxy and temporarily engulfed Sgr A*. This rather naturally creates a disk of gas with the steep surface density profile of the present stellar disk. The inner 0.04 pc is so optically thick that it cannot fragment, instead accreting onto Sgr A* in a few million years; meanwhile the outer disk fragments and creates the observed stellar disk. The isolated young stellar objects found at larger distances, on the other hand, can be explained by stabilisation of clouds or cloud cores by the high external pressure that permeates the inner Galaxy. A virial analysis shows that clouds are indeed tidally disrupted within 0.5 pc of Sgr A*, but outside this the external pressure allows self-gravitating clouds to survive, providing the raw material for ongoing star formation.
The Orbital and Planetary Phase Variations of Jupiter-Sized Planets: Characterizing Present and Future Giants
Laura Mayorga, NMSU
It is commonly said that exoplanet science is 100 years behind planetary science. While we may be able to travel to an exoplanet in the future, inferring the properties of exoplanets currently relies on extracting as much information as possible from a limited dataset. In order to further our ability to characterize, classify, and understand exoplanets as both a population and as individuals, this thesis makes use of multiple types of observations and simulations.
Firstly, direct-imaging is a technique long used in planetary science and is only now becoming feasible for exoplanet characterization. We present our results from analyzing Jupiter’s phase curve with Cassini/ISS to instruct the community in the complexity of exoplanet atmospheres and the need for further model development. The planet yields from future missions may be overestimated by today’s models. We also discuss the need for optimal bandpasses to best differentiate between planet classes.
Secondly, photometric surveys are still the best way of conducting population surveys of exoplanets. In particular, the Kepler dataset remains one of the highest precision photometric datasets and many planetary candidates remain to be characterized. We present techniques by which more information, such as a planet’s mass, can be extracted from a transit light curve without expensive ground- or space-based follow-up observations.
Finally, radial-velocity observations have revealed that many of the larger “planets” may actually be brown dwarfs. To understand the distinction between a brown dwarf and an exoplanet or a star, we have developed a simple, semi-analytic viscous disk model to study brown dwarf evolutionary history. We present the rudimentary framework and discuss its performance compared to more detailed numerical simulations as well as how additional physics and development can determine the potential observational characteristics that will differentiate between various formation scenarios.
Exoplanet science has already uncovered a plethora of previously unconsidered phenomenon. To increase our understanding of our own planet, as well as the other various possible end cases, will require a closer inspection of our own solar system, the nuanced details of exoplanet data, refined simulations, and laboratory astrophysics.
Dark Sky Images
Ken, an retired engineer, is a highly technically skilled and artistic
astrophotographer. He will be sharing some of his work and elaborating on
the technical methods and processing techniques he applies to obtain his
unique and enhanced images. You can see Ken’s work at: