Thursday, January 29, 2015

M Dwarfs may Produce Abiotic Oxygen in Carbon Dioxide Dominant Exoplanet Atmospheres

Stabilization of CO2 Atmospheres on Exoplanets around M Dwarf Stars

Gao et al


We investigate the chemical stability of CO2-dominated atmospheres of M dwarf terrestrial exoplanets using a 1-dimensional photochemical model. On planets orbiting Sun-like stars, the photolysis of CO2 by Far-UV (FUV) radiation is balanced by the reaction between CO and OH, the rate of which depends on H2O abundance. By comparison, planets orbiting M dwarf stars experience higher FUV radiation compared to planets orbiting Sun-like stars, and they are also likely to have low H2O abundance due to M dwarfs having a prolonged, high-luminosity pre-main sequence (Luger & Barnes 2015). We show that, for H2O-depleted planets around M dwarfs, a CO2-dominated atmosphere is stable to conversion to CO and O2 by relying on a catalytic cycle involving H2O2 photolysis. However, this cycle breaks down for planets with atmospheric hydrogen mixing ratios below ~1 ppm, resulting in ~40% of the atmospheric CO2 being converted to CO and O2 on a time scale of 1 Myr. The increased abundance of O2 also results in high O3 concentrations, which reacts with HO2 to generate OH, forming another catalytic cycle capable of stabilizing CO2. For atmospheres with less htan 0.1 ppm hydrogen, excess O atoms resulting from O3 photolysis react with CO and a third body to directly produce CO2. This series of catalytic cycles places an upper limit of ~50% on the amount of CO2 that can be destroyed via photolysis in such a dry atmosphere, which is enough to generate abundances of abiotic O2 and O3 rivaling that of modern Earth. Discrimination between O2 and O3 produced biologically and those produced abiotically through photolysis can perhaps be accomplished by noting the lack of water features in the spectra of these H2O-depleted planets, which necessitates observations in the infrared.

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