Monday, February 29, 2016

Most SuperEarths are Mini Neptunes

Super-Earth Atmospheres: Self-Consistent Gas Accretion and Retention


Ginzburg et al


Some recently discovered short-period Earth to Neptune sized exoplanets (super Earths) have low observed mean densities which can only be explained by voluminous gaseous atmospheres. Here, we study the conditions allowing the accretion and retention of such atmospheres. We self-consistently couple the nebular gas accretion onto solid cores and the subsequent evolution of gas envelopes following the dispersal of the protoplanetary disk. Specifically, we address mass-loss due to both photo-evaporation and cooling of the planet. We find that planets shed their outer layers (dozens of percents in mass) following the disk's dispersal (even without photo-evaporation), and their atmospheres shrink in a few Myr to a thickness comparable to the radius of the underlying solid core. At this stage, atmospheres containing less particles than the core (equivalently, lighter than a few % of the planet's mass) are blown away completely by heat coming from the cooling core, while heavier atmospheres cool and contract on a timescale of Gyr at most. By relating the mass-loss timescale to the accretion time, we derive limiting constraints, determining which planets can acquire and hold on to their atmospheres. Quantitatively, we analytically identify a Goldilocks region in the mass-temperature plane in which low-density super Earths can be found: planets have to be massive and cold enough to accrete and retain their atmospheres, while not too massive or cold, such that they do not enter runaway accretion and become gas giants (Jupiters). We compare our results to the observed super-Earth population and find that low-density planets are indeed concentrated in the theoretically allowed region. Our analytical and intuitive model can be used to investigate possible super-Earth formation scenarios.

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