Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Examining the Substellar Points of Exoplanets in the Visible Spectrum

A Semi-Analytical Model of Visible-Wavelength Phase Curves of Exoplanets and Applications to Kepler-7 b and Kepler-10 b


Hu et al


Kepler has detected numerous exoplanet transits by precise measurements of stellar light in a single visible-wavelength band. In addition to detection, the precise photometry provides phase curves of exoplanets, which can be used to study the dynamic processes on these planets. However, the interpretation of these observations can be complicated by the fact that visible-wavelength phase curves can represent both thermal emission and scattering from the planets. Here we present a semi-analytical model framework that can be applied to study Kepler and future visible-wavelength phase curve observations of exoplanets. The model efficiently computes reflection and thermal emission components for both rocky and gaseous planets, considering both homogeneous and inhomogeneous surfaces or atmospheres. We analyze the phase curves of the gaseous planet Kepler-7 b and the rocky planet Kepler-10 b using the model. In general, we find that a hot exoplanet's visible-wavelength phase curve having a significant phase offset can usually be explained by two classes of solutions: one class requires a thermal hot spot shifted to one side of the substellar point, and the other class requires reflective clouds concentrated on the same side of the substellar point. The two solutions would require very different Bond albedos to fit the same phase curve; atmospheric circulation models or eclipse observations at longer wavelengths can effectively rule out one class of solutions, and thus pinpoint the albedo of the planet, allowing decomposition of the reflection and the thermal emission components in the phase curve. Particularly for Kepler-7 b, reflective clouds located on the west side of the substellar point can best explain its phase curve. We further derive that the reflectivity of the clear part of the atmosphere should be less than 7% and that of the cloudy part should be greater than 80%.

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