Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Giant Impacts are an Efficient Mechanism for Devolatilization of Super-Earths

Giant Impact: An Efficient Mechanism for Devolatilization of Super-Earths


Liu et al


Mini-Neptunes and volatile-poor super-Earths coexist on adjacent orbits in proximity to host stars such as Kepler-36 and Kepler-11. Several post-formation processes have been proposed for explaining the origin of the compositional diversity: the mass loss via stellar XUV irradiation, degassing of accreted material, and in-situ accumulation of the disk gas. Close-in planets are also likely to experience giant impacts during the advanced stage of planet formation. This study examines the possibility of transforming volatile-rich super-Earths / mini-Neptunes into volatile-depleted super-Earths through giant impacts. We present the results of three-dimensional giant impact simulations in the accretionary and disruptive regimes. Target planets are modeled with a three-layered structure composed of an iron core, silicate mantle and hydrogen/helium envelope. In the disruptive case, the giant impact can remove most of the H/He atmosphere immediately and homogenize the refractory material in the planetary interior. In the accretionary case, the planet can retain more than half of the gaseous envelope, while a compositional gradient suppresses efficient heat transfer as its interior undergoes double-diffusive convection. After the giant impact, a hot and inflated planet cools and contracts slowly. The extended atmosphere enhances the mass loss via both a Parker wind induced by thermal pressure and hydrodynamic escape driven by the stellar XUV irradiation. As a result, the entire gaseous envelope is expected to be lost due to the combination of those processes in both cases. We propose that Kepler-36b may have been significantly devolatilized by giant impacts, while a substantial fraction of Kepler-36c's atmosphere may remain intact. Furthermore, the stochastic nature of giant impacts may account for the large dispersion in the mass--radius relationship of close-in super-Earths and mini-Neptunes.

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