The Impact of Non-Uniform Thermal Structure on the Interpretation of Exoplanet Emission Spectra
Feng et al
The determination of atmospheric structure and molecular abundances of planetary atmospheres via spectroscopy involves direct comparisons between models and data. While varying in sophistication, most model-spectra comparisons fundamentally assume "1D" model physics. However, knowledge from general circulation models and of solar system planets suggests that planetary atmospheres are inherently "3D" in their structure and composition. We explore the potential biases resulting from standard "1D" assumptions within a Bayesian atmospheric retrieval framework. Specifically, we show how the assumption of a single 1-dimensional thermal profile can bias our interpretation of the thermal emission spectrum of a hot Jupiter atmosphere that is composed of two thermal profiles. We retrieve upon spectra of unresolved model planets as observed with a combination of HST WFC3+Spitzer IRAC as well as JWST under varying differences in the two thermal profiles. For WFC3+IRAC, there is a significantly biased estimate of CH4 abundance using a 1D model when the contrast is 80%. For JWST, two thermal profiles are required to adequately interpret the data and estimate the abundances when contrast is greater than 40%. We also apply this preliminary concept to the recent WFC3+IRAC phase curve data of the hot Jupiter WASP-43b. We see similar behavior as present in our simulated data: while the H2O abundance determination is robust, CH4 is artificially well-constrained to incorrect values under the 1D assumption. Our work demonstrates the need to evaluate model assumptions in order to extract meaningful constraints from atmospheric spectra and motivates exploration of optimal observational setups.