How we do laboratory work on exoplanet atmospheres is an interesting challenge. We’ve worked up models of the early Earth’s atmosphere and conducted well-known experiments on them. Still within our own system, we’ve looked at worlds like Mars and Titan and, with a good read on their atmospheric chemistry, can reproduce an atmosphere within the laboratory with a fair degree of accuracy.

In the realm of exoplanets, we’re in the early stages of atmosphere characterization. We’re getting good results from transmission spectroscopy, which analyzes the light from a star as it filters through a planetary atmosphere during a transit. But thus far, the method has mostly been applied to gas giants. Getting down to the realm of rocky worlds is the next step, one that will be aided by space-based assets like the James Webb Space Telescope. Can lab work also help?

Probing the Atmosphere of a ‘Super-Earth’

Worlds smaller than gas giants are plentiful. Indeed, ‘super-Earths’ are the most common planets we’ve found outside our own Solar System. Larger than the Earth but smaller than Neptune, they present us with a challenge because we have no nearby examples to help us project what we might find. That leaves us with computer modeling to simulate possible targets of observation and, in the lab, experimentation to see which mixture produces what result.

At Johns Hopkins University, Sarah Hörst has been conducting experimental work that varies possible exoplanet atmospheres, working with different levels of carbon dioxide, hydrogen and water vapor, along with helium, carbon monoxide, methane and nitrogen. Hörst and team adjust the percentages of these gases, which they mix in a chamber and heat. The gaseous mixture is passed through a plasma discharge that initiates chemical reactions within the chamber.

The research team used JHU’s Planetary Haze Research chamber (PHAZER) to conduct the experiments. A key issue is how to choose atmospheric compositions that would be likely to be found on super-Earths, as the paper on this work explains:

Atmospheres in chemical equilibrium under a variety of expected super-Earth and mini-Neptune conditions can contain abundant H2O, CO, CO2, N2, H2 and/or CH4, various combinations of which may have a distinct complement of photochemically produced hazes, such as ‘tholins’ and complex organics in the low-temperature, H2-rich cases, and sulphuric acid in the high-metallicity, CO2/H2O-rich cases. Warm atmospheres outgassed from a silicate composition can also be dominated by H2O and CO2. We therefore chose to focus on a representative sample of gas mixtures that are based on equilibrium compositions for 100×, 1,000× and 10,000× solar metallicity over a range of temperatures from 300–600?K at an atmospheric pressure of 1?mbar.

Image: This is Figure 2 in the paper. Caption: Due to the large variety of gases used for the experiments, this schematic provides a general idea of the setup. The details varied depending on the gases used, with attention paid to the solubility of gases in liquid water, condensation temperatures and gas purity. Credit: Sarah Hörst/JHU.

At issue is the question of haze, solid particles suspended in gas that can make it difficult to gauge the spectral fingerprints that identify individual gases. You might recall the clear upper atmosphere scientists found at the ‘hot Saturn’ WASP-39b (see Probing a ‘Hot Saturn’). Using transmission spectroscopy on this world, much larger than a super-Earth, Hannah Wakeford’s team at STscI found clear evidence of water vapor, and a surprising amount of it.

It was the fact that WASP-39b’s upper atmosphere is apparently free of clouds that allowed such detailed study of the atmospheric constituents. When we’re dealing with planets with haze, our ability to read these signs is more problematic. Learning more about the kinds of atmospheres likely to be hazy should help us refine our target list for future observatories.

Hörst’s laboratory work probes the production of haze, as the scientist explains:

“The energy breaks up the gas molecules that we start with. They react with each other and make new things and sometimes they’ll make a solid particle [creating haze] and sometimes they won’t,” Hörst said. “The fundamental question for this paper was: Which of these gas mixtures – which of these atmospheres – will we expect to be hazy?”

Two of the atmospheres in which water was dominant turned out to produce a large amount of haze, an indication that haze is not solely the result of interactions in methane chemistry. From the paper:

The two experiments with the highest production rates had the two highest CH4 concentrations, but the one with the third highest production rate (10,000× at 600?K) had no CH4 at all, demonstrating that there are multiple pathways for organic haze formation and that CH4 is not necessarily required. In the case of the experiment with no CH4, the gas mixture had CO, which provided a source of carbon in place of CH4. However, it is important to note that the production rates are not simply a function of carbon abundance, C/O, C/H or C/N ratios in the initial gas mixtures. This result also demonstrates the need for experimental investigations to develop a robust theory of haze formation in planetary atmospheres.

The researchers found a wide variation in particle color as a function of metallicity. The color of particles produced in the haze turns out to have an effect on the amount of heat it traps. Such findings may have implications for astrobiology, when we consider that primitive layers of haze could shield life in its early stages, preventing energetic photons from reaching the surface.

This work is in its early stages, as the paper makes clear:

Although models of atmospheric photochemistry and haze optical properties provide good first estimates, they are incomplete and biased due to the relatively small phase space spanned by the Solar System atmospheres on which they are based. Laboratory production of exoplanet hazes is a crucial next step in our ability to properly characterize these planetary atmospheres. These experimental simulations of atmospheric chemistry and haze formation relevant to super-Earth and mini-Neptune atmospheres show that atmospheric characterization efforts for cool (T?< ?800?K) super-Earth- and mini-Neptune-type exoplanets will encounter planets with a wide variety of haze production rates.

The paper also reminds us that hazes will have an effect on reflected light, which will have a bearing on future direct imaging of exoplanets. Lab work like this is part of building the toolsets we’ll need for probing rocky worlds around nearby stars in search of biosignatures. My assumption is that in the early going, we are going to see a lot of ambiguous results, with atmospheres with potential biosignatures being likewise capable of interpretation through abiotic means. Homing in on the most likely targets and understanding the chemistry at play will give us the best chance for success when looking at worlds so unlike any in our own system.

The paper is Hörst et al., “Haze production rates in super-Earth and mini-Neptune atmosphere experiments,” Nature Astronomy 5 March 2018 (abstract).