A Synergistic Approach to Interpreting Planetary Atmospheres

Open Access
Batalha, Natasha Elaine
Graduate Program:
Astronomy and Astrophysics
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
June 05, 2017
Committee Members:
  • James Kasting, Dissertation Advisor/Co-Advisor
  • Steinn Sigurdsson, Committee Chair/Co-Chair
  • Jason Thomas Wright, Committee Member
  • Eric B Ford, Committee Member
  • Chris Eliot Forest, Outside Member
  • Exoplanets
  • astrobiology
  • planetary science
  • James Webb space telescope
  • spectroscopy
  • atmospheric science
  • transiting exoplanets
  • information content theory
  • atmospheric retrieval
  • mars
  • early mars
  • energy balance model
  • photochemical model
  • climate model
  • carbonate silicate cycle
  • atmospheres
We will soon have the technological capability to measure the atmospheric composition of temperate Earth-sized planets orbiting nearby stars. Interpreting these atmospheric signals poses a new challenge to planetary science. In contrast to jovian-like atmospheres, whose bulk compositions consist of hydrogen and helium, terrestrial planet atmospheres are likely comprised of high mean molecular weight secondary atmospheres, which have gone through a high degree of evolution. For example, present-day Mars has a frozen surface with a thin tenuous atmosphere, but 4 billion years ago it may have been warmed by a thick greenhouse atmosphere. Several processes contribute to a planet's atmospheric evolution: stellar evolution, geological processes, atmospheric escape, biology, etc. Each of these individual processes affects the planetary system as a whole and therefore they all must be considered in the modeling of terrestrial planets. In order to demonstrate the intricacies in modeling terrestrial planets, I use early Mars as a case study. I leverage a combination of one-dimensional climate, photochemical and energy balance models in order to create one self-consistent model that closely matches currently available climate data. One-dimensional models can address several processes: the influence of greenhouse gases on heating, the effect of the planet's geological processes (i.e. volcanoes and the carbonate-silicate cycle) on the atmosphere, the effect of rainfall on atmospheric composition and the stellar irradiance. After demonstrating the number of assumptions required to build a model, I look towards what exactly we can learn from remote observations of temperate Earths and Super Earths. However, unlike in-situ observations from our own solar system, remote sensing techniques need to be developed and understood in order to accurately characterize exo-atmospheres. I describe the models used to create synthetic transit transmission observations, which includes models of transit spectroscopy and instrumental noise. Using these, I lay the framework for an information content-based approach to optimize our observations and maximize the retrievable information from exo-atmospheres. First I test the method on observing strategies of the well-studied, low-mean-molecular weight atmospheres of warm-Neptunes and hot Jupiters. Upon verifying the methodology, I finally address optimal observing strategies for temperate, high-mean-molecular weight atmospheres (Earths/super-Earths).