Dave Moore is a Centauri Dreams regular who has long pursued an interest in the observation and exploration of deep space. He was born and raised in New Zealand, spent time in Australia, and now runs a small business in Klamath Falls, Oregon. He counts Arthur C. Clarke as a childhood hero, and science fiction as an impetus for his acquiring a degree in biology and chemistry. Dave has kept up an active interest in SETI (see If Loud Aliens Explain Human Earliness, Quiet Aliens Are Also Rare) as well as the exoplanet hunt, and today examines an unusual class of planets that is just now emerging as an active field of study.

by Dave Moore

Let me draw your attention to a paper with interesting implications for exoplanet habitability. The paper is “Potential long-term habitable conditions on planets with primordial H–He atmospheres,” by Marit Mol Lous, Ravit Helled and Christoph Mordasini. Published in Nature Astronomy, this paper is a follow-on to Madhusudhan et al’s paper on Hycean worlds. Paul’s article Hycean Worlds: A New Candidate for Biosignatures caught my imagination and led to this further look.

Both papers cover Super-Earths, planets larger than 120% of Earth’s radius, but smaller than the Sub-Neptunes, which are generally considered to start at twice Earth’s radius. Super-Earths occur around 40% of M-dwarf stars examined and are projected to constitute 30% of all planets, making them the most common type in the galaxy. Hycean planets are a postulated subgroup of Super-Earths that have a particular geology and chemistry; that is, they have a water layer above a rocky core below a hydrogen–helium primordial atmosphere.

We’ll be hearing a lot more about these worlds in the future. They are similar enough to Earth to be regarded as a good target for biomarkers, but being larger than Earth, they are easier to detect via stellar Doppler shift or stellar transit, and their deep atmospheres make obtaining their spectra easier than with terrestrial worlds. The James Webb telescope is marginal for this purpose, but getting detailed atmospheric spectra is well within the range of the next generation of giant, ground-based telescopes: the 39-meter Extremely Large Telescope and the 24.5-meter Giant Magellan Telescope, both of which are under construction and set to start collecting data by the end of the decade (the status of the Thirty Meter Telescope is still problematic).

Earth quickly lost its primordial hydrogen-helium atmosphere, but once a planet’s mass reaches 150% of Earth’s, this process slows considerably and planets more massive than that can retain their primordial atmosphere for gigayears. Hydrogen, being a simple molecule, does not have a lot of absorption lines in the infrared, but under pressure, the pressure-broadening of these lines makes it a passable greenhouse gas.

If the atmosphere is of the correct depth, this will allow surface water to persist over a much wider range of insolation than with Earth-like planets. With enough atmosphere, the insulating effect is sufficient to maintain temperate conditions over geological lengths of time from the planet’s internal heat flow alone, meaning these planets, with a sufficiently dense atmosphere, can have temperate surface conditions even if they have been ejected from planetary systems and wander the depths of space.

Figure 1: This is a chart from Madhusudhan et al’s paper showing the range where Hycean planets maintain surface temperatures suitable for liquid water, compared with the habitable zone for terrestrial planets as derived by Kopparapu et al. ‘Cold Hycean’ refers to planets where stellar insolation plays a negligible part in heating the surface. Keep in mind, that Lous et al regard the inner part of this zone as unviable due to atmospheric loss.

Madhusudhan et al’s models were a series of static snapshots under a variety of conditions. Lous et al’s paper builds on this by modeling the surface conditions of these planets over time. The authors take a star of solar luminosity with a solar evolutionary track and, using 1.5, 3 and 8 Earth mass planets, model the surface temperature over time at various distances and hydrogen overpressures, also calculating in the heat flow from radiogenic decay.

Typically, a planet will start off too hot. Its steam atmosphere will condense, leaving the planet with oceans; and after some period, the surface temperature will fall below freezing. The chart below shows the length of time a planet has a surface temperature that allows liquid water. (Note that, because of higher surface pressures, water in these scenarios has a boiling point well over 100°C, so the oceans may be considered inhospitable to life for parts of their range.)

Planets with small envelope masses have liquid water conditions relatively early on, while planets with more massive envelopes reach liquid water conditions later in their evolution. Out to 10 au, stellar insolation is the dominant factor in determining the surface temperature, but further out than that, the heat of radiogenic decay takes over. The authors use log M(atm)/log M(Earth) on their Y axis, which I didn’t find very helpful. To convert this to an approximate surface pressure in bars, make the following conversions: 10-6 = 1 bar, 10-5 = 10 bar, 10-4 = 100 bar and so on.

Figure 2: Charts a-c are for core masses of 1.5 (a), 3 (b) and 8 M? (c). The duration of the total evolution is 8 Gyr. The color of a grid point indicates how long there were continuous surface pressures and temperatures allowing liquid water, ?lqw. These range from 10 Myr (purple) to over 5 Gyr (yellow). Gray crosses correspond to cases with no liquid water conditions lasting longer than 10 Myr. Atmospheric loss is not considered in these simulations. d is the results for planets with a core mass of 3 M?, but including the constraint that the surface temperature must remain between 270 and 400 K. Every panel contains an ‘unbound’ case where the distance is set to 106 AU and solar insolation has become negligible.

The authors then ran their model adjusted for hydrodynamic escape (Jeans escape is negligible). This loss of atmosphere mainly affects the less massive, closer in planets with thinner atmospheres.

To quote:

The results when the hydrodynamic escape model is included are shown in Fig. 3. In this case, we find that there are no long-term liquid water conditions possible on planets with a primordial atmosphere within 2au. Madhusudhan et al. found that for planets around Sun-like stars, liquid water conditions are allowed at a distance of ~1 au. We find that the pressures required for liquid water conditions between 1 and 2au are too low to be resistant against atmospheric escape, assuming that the planet does not migrate at a late evolutionary stage.

Figure 3: Charts a-c are for core masses of 1.5 (a), 3 (b) and 8 M? (c). d is the results for planets with a core mass of 3 M?, but including the constraint that the surface temperature must remain between 270 and 400 K. Note: escape inhibits liquid water conditions by removing the atmosphere for close-in planets with low initial envelope masses. Lower core masses are more affected.

The authors also note that their simulations indicate that, unlike terrestrial planets which require climatic negative feedback loops to retain temperate conditions, Hycean worlds are naturally stable over very long periods of time.

The authors then go on to discuss the possibility of life, pointing out that the surface pressures required are frequently in the 100 to 1000 bar range, which is the level of the deep ocean and with similar light levels, so photosynthesis is out. This is a problem searching for biomarkers because photosynthesis produces chemical disequilibria, which are considered a sign of biological activity, whereas chemotrophs, the sort of life forms you would expect to find, make their living by destroying chemical disequilibria.

The authors hope to do a similar analysis with red dwarf stars as these are the stars where Super-Earths occur most frequently. Also, they are the stars where the contrast between stellar and planetary luminosity gives the best signal.

Thoughts and Speculations

The exotic nature of these planets lead me to examine their properties, so here are some points I came up with that you may want to consider:

i) The Fulton Gap—also called the small planet mass-radius valley. Small planets around stars have a distinctly bimodal distribution with peaks at 1.3 Earth radii and 2.4 Earth radii with a minimum at 1.8 Earth radii. Density measurements align with this distribution. Super-Earth densities peak, on average, at 1.4 Earth radii with a steady fall off above that. Planets smaller than about 1.5 Earth radii are thought to contain a solid core with shallow atmospheres, whereas planets above 1.8 Earth radii are thought to have deep atmospheres of volatiles and a composition like an Ice-Giant (i.e. they are Sub-Neptunes.)

Taking Lous et al’s planets, a 3 Earth mass planet would have an approximate radius of 1.3 Earth radii. An 8 Earth mass planet would have an approximate radius of 1.8 Earth radii (assuming similar densities to Earth.) This would point towards the 8 Earth mass planets having an atmosphere too deep to make a Hycean world. The atmosphere would probably transition into a supercritical fluid.

ii) I compared the liquid water atmospheric pressures from our solar system’s giant planets with the expectations of the paper. I had trouble finding good figures, as the pressure temperature charts peter out at water ice cloud level, but here are the approximate figures for the giant planets compared with the range on the 270°K-400°K graph that Lous et al produced:

Jupiter: 7-11 bar / 8-30 bar

Saturn: 10-20 bar / 25-100 bar

Neptune: 50+ Bar (50 bar is the level at which ice clouds form) / 200-500 bar

Our giant planets appear to be on the shallow side of the paper’s expectations. This could be attributed to our giant planets having greater internal heat flow than the Super-Earths modeled, but that would make the deviation greatest for Jupiter and least for Neptune. The deviation, however, appears to increase in the other direction.

The authors of the paper note that their models did not take into consideration the greenhouse effect of other gasses such as ammonia and methane likely to be found in Hycean planets’ atmospheres, which would add to the greenhouse effect and therefore give a shallower pressure profile for a given temperature. And from looking at our giant planets, this would appear to be the case.

This could mean that an unbound world would maintain a liquid ocean under something like 100+ bars of atmosphere rather than the 1000 bars originally postulated.

iii) Next, I considered the chemistry of Hycean worlds. Using our solar system’s giant planets as a guide, we can expect considerable quantities of methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and phosphine in the atmospheres of Hycean worlds. The methane would stay a gas, but ammonia, being highly hydrophilic, would dissolve into the ocean. If the planet’s nitrogen to water ratio is similar to Earth’s, this would result in an approximately 1% ammonia solution. A ratio like Jupiter’s would give a 13% solution. (Ammonia cleaning fluids are generally 1-3% in concentration.) A 1% solution would have a pH of about 12, but some of this alkalinity may be buffered by the hydrosulfide ion (HS) from the hydrogen sulfide in solution.

It then occurred to me to look at freezing point depression curves of ammonia/water mixtures, and they are really gnarly. An ammonia/water ocean, if cooled below 0°C, will develop an ice cap, but as the water freezes out, this increases the ammonia concentration, causing a considerable depression in the freezing point. If the ocean reaches -60°C, something interesting starts to happen. The ice crystals forming in the ocean and floating up to the base of the ice cap start to sink, as the ocean fluid, now 25% ammonia, is less dense than ice. This will result in an overturn of the ocean and the ice cap. Further cooling will result in the continued precipitation of ice crystals until the ocean reaches a eutectic mixture of approximately 2 parts water to 1 part ammonia, which freezes at -91°C. (For comparison, pure ammonia freezes at -78°C.) Note: all figures are for 1 bar.

When discussing the possibility of liquid water on planets, we have to include the fact that water under sufficient pressure can be liquid up to its critical point of 374°C. The paper takes this into account; but what we see here is that, aside from showing that the range of insolation over which planets can have liquid water is larger than we thought, the range that water can be liquid is also larger than we assumed.

While some passing thought has been given to the possibility of ammonia as a solvent for life forms, nobody appears to have considered water/ammonia mixtures.

iv) Turning from ammonia to methane, I began to wonder if these planets would have a brown haze like Titan. A little bit of research showed that the brown haze of Titan is mainly made of tholins, which are formed by the UV photolysis of methane and nitrogen. Tholins are highly insoluble in hydrocarbons, which is why Titan’s lakes are relatively pure mixtures of hydrocarbons. However, tholins are highly soluble in polar solvents like water. So a Hycean planet with a water cycle would rain out tholins that formed in the upper atmosphere, but if the surface was frozen like Titan’s, they would stay in the atmosphere, forming a brown haze.

This points to the possibility that there are significant differences in the composition of a Hycean planet’s atmosphere depending on whether its surface is frozen or oceanic. and this may be detectable by spectroscopy.

I’m looking forward to finding out more about these planets. In some ways, I feel that in respect to exosolar planets, we are now in a position similar to that of our own solar system in the early 60s – eagerly awaiting the first details to come in.


Marit Mol Lous, Ravit Helled and Christoph Mordasini, “Potential long-term habitable conditions on planets with primordial H–He atmospheres,” Nature Astronomy, 6: 819-827 (July 2022). Full text.

Nikku Madhusudhan, Anjali A. A. Piette, and Savvas Constantinou, “Habitability and Biosignatures of Hycean Worlds,” The Astrophysical Journal, (Aug. 2021). Preprint.

Fulton et al, “The California-Kepler Survey. III. A Gap in the Radius Distribution of Small Planets,” The Astronomical Journal, 154 (3) 2017. Abstract.

Christopher P. McKay, ”Elemental composition, solubility, and optical properties of Titan’s organic haze,” Planetary Space Science, 8: 741-747 (1996). Abstract.