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.
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.