Effects of refraction on transmission spectra of gas giants: decrease of the Rayleigh scattering slope and breaking of retrieval degeneracies
Detection of the signature of Rayleigh scattering in the transmission spectrum of an exoplanet is increasingly becoming the target of observational campaigns because the spectral slope of the Rayleigh continuum enables one to determine the scaleheight of its atmosphere in the absence of hazes. However, this is only true when one ignores the refractive effects of the exoplanet's atmosphere. I illustrate with a suite of simple isothermal clear Jovian H2-He atmosphere models with various abundances of water that refraction can decrease significantly the spectral slope of the Rayleigh continuum and that it becomes flat in the infrared. This mimics a surface, or an optically thick cloud deck, at much smaller pressures than one can probe in the non-refractive case. Although the relative impact of refraction on an exoplanet's transmission spectrum increases with decreasing atmospheric temperatures as well as increasing stellar temperature, it is still quite important from a retrieval's perspective even for a Jovian-like planet with an atmospheric temperature as high as 1200 K. Indeed, the flat Rayleigh continuum in the infrared breaks in large part the retrieval degeneracy between abundances of chemical species and the planet's radius because the size of spectral features increases significantly with abundances, in stark contrast with the non-refractive case which simply shifts them to a larger or smaller effective radius. Abundances inferred assuming the atmosphere is cloud-free are lower limits. These results show how important it is to include refraction in retrieval algorithms to interpret transmission spectra of gas giants accurately.