Inferring the Climates of Red Dwarf Planets

Planets orbiting red dwarf stars are unique compared to other star systems because such planets are prone to falling into synchronous rotation, so that one side experiences perpetual day and the opposite side resides in permanent night. Such planets could still be habitable, sustaining liquid water and perhaps even life, so such systems continue to be targeted in the search for signs of life on exoplanets.

One starting point to looking for life on such worlds is to infer properties of an exoplanet climate from astronomical data. Eric Wolf, Ravi Kopparapu, and myself examine this problem in a paper titled “Simulated phase-dependent spectra of terrestrial aquaplanets in M dwarf systems” and published in The Astrophysical Journal. Infrared emission and reflected stellar light from a planet changes as it orbits its host star. We should that observations of these orbital changes in thermal energy could provide important information on the circulation state of the planet, the location of major cloud decks, and the abundance of water vapor. As the next generation of space telescope are designed and launched, methods such as these will become important tools for understanding the potential of M-dwarf systems to support life.

Exomoon Atmospheres

As astronomers continue to search for potentially habitable planets orbiting other stars, some have also started to consider the possibility of habitable moons orbiting giant planets in such systems. Such exomoons could be the size of Mars, Earth, or even a few times larger, based on observations of similar large moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn. A few scientific studies have demonstrated that exomoons should be expected in other planetary systems and could even be observable with the next generation of space telescopes.

I recently published a paper with RenĂ© Heller in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society titled “Exploring exomoon atmospheres with an idealized general circulation model.” This study presents the first three-dimensional climate modeling of exomoon atmospheres. Exomoon atmospheres receive daily instellation from the host star of the planetary system, which would make them similar in climate to an Earth-like planet. But exomoons are also in synchronous rotation with the host giant planet (similar to the synchronous rotation of our moon around Earth). Exomoons therefore receive additional thermal energy at the top of their atmospheres from their host planet, in addition to the star. This configuration leads to a climate with warmer poles (a phenomenon known as “polar amplification”) and stronger dynamical energy transport.

Some exomoons atmospheres could enter a runaway greenhouse from the additional thermal energy of the host planet, but others should be able to maintain stable and potentially habitable atmospheres. Exomoons remain viable prospects in the search for life, and future astronomical surveys will gradually reveal the frequency of such worlds.

Circulation States of Synchronous Rotators

Some planets around low mass stars are expected to be in synchronous rotation, so that the star is continually fixed upon one side. This not only causes one hemisphere to experience permanent day and the other to reside in permanent night (with perpetual twilight along the “terminator” at the edges), but this also drives the climate into a regime fundamentally unlike any seen in the atmosphere of Earth.

In a recent paper titled, “Demarcating circulation regimes of synchronously rotating terrestrial planets within the habitable zone,” my co-authors and I analyze a set of climate model calculations to examine the dependence upon stellar effective temperature of the atmospheric dynamics of planets as they move closer to the inner edge of the
habitable zone. These results show that the surface temperature contrast between day and night hemispheres decreases with an increase in incident stellar flux. This trend is opposite that seen on gas giants, where the same forcing shows an increase in the day-night atmosphere temperature contrast.

We define three dynamical regimes in terms of the dynamical quantities known as the Rossby deformation radius (the ratio of buoyancy to rotation) and the Rhines length (the maximum extent of turbulent structures). The slow rotation regime is characterized by a mean zonal circulation that spans from the day to night side. Slow rotation requires that both the Rossby deformation radius and the Rhines length exceed planetary radius, which occurs for planets with rotation rate > 20 days. Rapid rotators show a mean zonal circulation that only partially spans a hemisphere, with banded cloud formation beneath the substellar point. The rapid rotation regime is defined by the Rossby deformation radius being less than planetary radius, which occurs for planets with rotation rate < 5 days. In between is the Rhines rotation regime, which retains a mean zonal circulation from day to night side but also features midlatitude turbulence-driven zonal jets. Rhines rotators are expected for planets with rotation rate between 5 to 20 days, where the Rhines length is less than planetary radius but the Rossby deformation radius is greater than planetary radius. The dynamical state can be inferred from observations of orbital period and spectral type of the host star as well as from comparing the morphology of the thermal emission phase curves of synchronously rotating planets. Such phase curves will be potentially useful tools for characterizing planets with the next generation of space telescopes.

Water Loss on Planets Orbiting Low-Mass Stars

An Earth-like planet tends to increase its water vapor content as its mean temperature increases. The inner edge of the habitable zone is defined by the point at which such a planet begins to lose its water, thus rendering it uninhabitable. A “moist greenhouse” occurs when the (usually dry) upper atmosphere becomes wet, which results in the destruction of water molecules by incoming sunlight. Another process knows as a “runaway greenhouse” occurs due to the increased greenhouse effect of water vapor in the lower atmosphere, which further drives evaporation and more warming. Either of these processes could cause a planet at the inner edge of the habitable zone to lose its oceans entirely.

In a recent paper published in The Astrophysical Journal, titled “Habitable Moist Atmospheres On Terrestrial Planets Near the Inner Edge Of the Habitable Zone Around M-dwarfs,” my co-authors and I conduct three-dimensional climate simulations of planets orbiting low-mass stars. We show that planets near the inner edge of the habitable zone should generally first enter a moist greenhouse state, although planets around the coolest stars we analyzed should directly transition into a runaway greenhouse state instead. Some of these planets orbiting low-mass stars could experience very slow water loss that could last up to the lifetime of the star, which could allow habitable conditions to persist even during a moist or runaway greenhouse.