A pinboard by
Ricky Nilsson

Postdoc, California Institute of Technology


Probing weather and clouds in the atmospheres of giant planets and brown dwarfs using polarimetry

To evaluate the habitability of newfound planets beyond the Solar System, we have to characterize their atmospheres. Measuring the atmospheric properties of extrasolar worlds and understanding their atmospheric chemistry, cloud formation, and dynamical evolution -- basically charting the weather impacting alien landscapes -- has profound implications for determining how life could arise and evolve on their surfaces. Although directly observing the atmospheres of Earth-like planets in the habitable zones around stars will have to await future extremely large telescopes, current state-of-the-art astronomical observations allow us to probe the hotter atmospheres of Jupiter-like exoplanets and other substellar objects known as brown dwarfs, exploring properties that can be extrapolated to cooler and less massive planets. An important, but as-of-yet, largely unexplored parameter domain for studying light from extrasolar worlds, is polarimetry. Polarized light carries with it information about scattering processes in the atmospheres from which it originates. Using the Palomar Observatory 5-m telescope and a newly commissioned instrument mode, called WIRC+Pol, we are currently obtaining time-resolved near-infrared polarization spectra of more than 500 brown dwarfs and a handful of gas giant exoplanets, measuring the relative amount of linearly polarized light at different wavelengths and at different times, reaching us from atmospheric thermal radiation and scattering. These measurements are compared to atmospheric models to determine pressure-temperature profiles, composition, and detailed properties of cloud particles, as well as the surface distribution and evolution of clouds. At the end of this survey, 3 years from now, we hope to have comprehensively characterized atmospheric properties and dynamics on a wide range of cool substellar objects, and for the first time ever have unambiguously discovered clouds and weather patterns on worlds beyond the Solar System.


Doppler Imaging of Exoplanets and Brown Dwarfs

Abstract: Doppler Imaging produces 2D global maps of rotating objects using high-dispersion spectroscopy. When applied to brown dwarfs and extrasolar planets, this technique can constrain global atmospheric dynamics and/or magnetic effects on these objects in un- precedented detail. I present the first quantitative assessment of the prospects for Doppler Imaging of substellar objects with current facilities and with future giant ground-based telescopes. Observations will have the greatest sensitivity in K band, but the H and L bands will also be useful for these purposes. To assess the number and availability of targets, I also present a compilation of all measurements of photometric variability, rotation period (P), and projected rotational velocity (v sin i) for brown dwarfs and exoplanets. Several bright objects are already accessible to Doppler Imaging with currently available instruments. With the development of giant ground-based telescopes, Doppler Imaging will become feasible for many dozens of brown dwarfs and for the few brightest directly imaged extrasolar planets (such as beta Pic b). The present set of measurements of P, v sin i, and variability are incomplete for many objects, and the sample is strongly biased toward early-type objects (< L5). Thus, surveys to measure these quantities for later-type objects will be especially helpful in expanding the sample of candidates for global weather monitoring via Doppler Imaging.

Pub.: 30 Apr '14, Pinned: 30 Jun '17

Brown Dwarf Photospheres are Patchy: A Hubble Space Telescope Near-infrared Spectroscopic Survey Finds Frequent Low-level Variability

Abstract: Condensate clouds strongly impact the spectra of brown dwarfs and exoplanets. Recent discoveries of variable L/T transition dwarfs argued for patchy clouds in at least some ultracool atmospheres. This study aims to measure the frequency and level of spectral variability in brown dwarfs and to search for correlations with spectral type. We used HST/WFC3 to obtain spectroscopic time series for 22 brown dwarfs of spectral types ranging from L5 to T6 at 1.1-1.7 $\mu$m for $\approx$40 min per object. Using Bayesian analysis, we find 6 brown dwarfs with confident $(p>95\%)$ variability in the relative flux in at least one wavelength region at sub-percent precision, and 5 brown dwarfs with tentative $(p>68\%)$ variability. We derive a minimum variability fraction $f_{min}=27^{+11}_{-7}\%$ over all covered spectral types. The fraction of variables is equal within errors for mid L, late L and mid T spectral types; for early T dwarfs we do not find any confident variable but the sample is too small to derive meaningful limits. For some objects, the variability occurs primarily in the flux peak in the J or H band, others are variable throughout the spectrum or only in specific absorption regions. Four sources may have broad-band peak-to-peak amplitudes exceeding 1%. Our measurements are not sensitive to very long periods, inclinations near pole-on and rotationally symmetric heterogeneity. The detection statistics are consistent with most brown dwarf photospheres being patchy. While multiple-percent near-infrared variability may be rare and confined to the L/T transition, low-level heterogeneities are a frequent characteristic of brown dwarf atmospheres.

Pub.: 18 Dec '13, Pinned: 30 Jun '17

Variability in a Young, L/T Transition Planetary-Mass Object

Abstract: As part of our ongoing NTT SoFI survey for variability in young free-floating planets and low mass brown dwarfs, we detect significant variability in the young, free-floating planetary mass object PSO J318.5-22, likely due to rotational modulation of inhomogeneous cloud cover. A member of the 23$\pm$3 Myr $\beta$ Pic moving group, PSO J318.5-22 has T$_\mathrm{eff}$ = 1160$^{+30}_{-40}$ K and a mass estimate of 8.3$\pm$0.5 M$_{Jup}$ for a 23$\pm$3 Myr age. PSO J318.5-22 is intermediate in mass between 51 Eri b and $\beta$ Pic b, the two known exoplanet companions in the $\beta$ Pic moving group. With variability amplitudes from 7-10$\%$ in J$_{S}$ at two separate epochs over 3-5 hour observations, we constrain the rotational period of this object to $>$5 hours. In K$_{S}$, we marginally detect a variability trend of up to 3$\%$ over a 3 hour observation. This is the first detection of weather on an extrasolar planetary mass object. Among L dwarfs surveyed at high-photometric precision ($<$3$\%$) this is the highest amplitude variability detection. Given the low surface gravity of this object, the high amplitude preliminarily suggests that such objects may be more variable than their high mass counterparts, although observations of a larger sample is necessary to confirm this. Measuring similar variability for directly imaged planetary companions is possible with instruments such as SPHERE and GPI and will provide important constraints on formation. Measuring variability at multiple wavelengths can help constrain cloud structure.

Pub.: 26 Oct '15, Pinned: 30 Jun '17

High-Cadence, High-Contrast Imaging for Exoplanet Mapping: Observations of the HR 8799 Planets with VLT/SPHERE Satellite Spot-Corrected Relative Photometry

Abstract: Time-resolved photometry is an important new probe of the physics of condensate clouds in extrasolar planets and brown dwarfs. Extreme adaptive optics systems can directly image planets, but precise brightness measurements are challenging. We present VLT/SPHERE high-contrast, time-resolved broad H-band near-infrared photometry for four exoplanets in the HR 8799 system, sampling changes from night to night over five nights with relatively short integrations. The photospheres of these four planets are often modeled by patchy clouds and may show large-amplitude rotational brightness modulations. Our observations provide high-quality images of the system. We present a detailed performance analysis of different data analysis approaches to accurately measure the relative brightnesses of the four exoplanets. We explore the information in satellite spots and demonstrate their use as a proxy for image quality. While the brightness variations of the satellite spots are strongly correlated, we also identify a second-order anti-correlation pattern between the different spots. Our study finds that PCA-based KLIP reduction with satellite spot-modulated artificial planet-injection based photometry (SMAP) leads to a significant (~3x) gain in photometric accuracy over standard aperture-based photometry and reaches 0.1 mag per point accuracy for our dataset, the signal-to-noise of which is limited by small field rotation. Relative planet-to-planet photometry can be compared be- tween nights, enabling observations spanning multiple nights to probe variability. Recent high-quality relative H-band photometry of the b-c planet pair agree to about 1%.

Pub.: 09 Feb '16, Pinned: 30 Jun '17

Characterizing exoplanetary atmospheres through infrared polarimetry

Abstract: Planets can emit polarized thermal radiation, just like brown dwarfs. We present calculated thermal polarization signals from hot exoplanets, using an advanced radiative transfer code that fully includes all orders of scattering by gaseous molecules and cloud particles. The code spatially resolves the disk of the planet, allowing simulations for horizontally inhomogeneous planets. Our results show that the degree of linear polarization, P, of an exoplanet's thermal radiation is expected to be highest near the planet's limb and that this P depends on the temperature and its gradient, the scattering properties and the distribution of the cloud particles. Integrated over the disk of a spherically symmetric planet, P of the thermal radiation equals zero. However, for planets that appear spherically asymmetric, e.g. due to flattening, cloud bands or spots in their atmosphere, differences in their day and night sides, and/or obscuring rings, P is often larger than 0.1 %, in favorable cases even reaching several percent at near-infrared wavelengths. Detection of thermal polarization signals can give access to planetary parameters that are otherwise hard to obtain: it immediately confirms the presence of clouds, and P can then constrain atmospheric inhomogeneities and the flattening due to the planet's rotation rate. For zonally symmetric planets, the angle of polarization will yield the components of the planet's spin axis normal to the line-of-sight. Finally, our simulations show that P is generally more sensitive to variability in a cloudy planet's atmosphere than the thermal flux is, and could hence better reveal certain dynamical processes.

Pub.: 05 Aug '11, Pinned: 30 Jun '17

Retrieval of atmospheric properties of cloudy L dwarfs

Abstract: We present the first results from applying the spectral inversion technique in the cloudy L dwarf regime. Our new framework provides a flexible approach to modelling cloud opacity which can be built incrementally as the data requires, and improves upon previous retrieval experiments in the brown dwarf regime by allowing for scattering in two stream radiative transfer. Our first application of the tool to two mid-L dwarfs is able to closely reproduce their near-infrared spectra, far more closely that grid models for the targets Teff and gravity. By extrapolating our retrieved spectra we estimate for 2MASS J05002100+0330501 $T_{\rm eff} = 1835^{+22}_{-19}$K and $\log g = 5.2^{+0.08}_{-0.19}$ and for 2MASSW J2224438-015852 we find $T_{\rm eff} = 1735^{+16}_{-19}$K and $\log g = 5.28^{+0.07}_{-0.14}$, in close agreement with previous empirical estimates. Our best model for both objects includes an optically thick cloud deck which passes $\tau_{cloud} > 1$ (looking down) at a pressure of around 5 bar. This pressure is too high for silicate species to condense, and we argue that corundum and/or iron clouds are responsible for this cloud opacity. We also find the opacity consistent with a cloud of particles following a Hansen distribution dominated by sub-micron sized particles. Our retrieved profiles are cooler at depth, and warmer at altitude than the forward grid models that we compare, and we argue that some form of heating mechanism may be at work in the upper atmospheres of these L dwarfs. We also identify anomalously high CO abundance in both targets, which does not correlate with the warmth of our upper atmospheres or our choice of cloud model.

Pub.: 05 Jan '17, Pinned: 30 Jun '17

Polarized scattered light from self-luminous exoplanets

Abstract: Direct imaging has paved the way for atmospheric characterization of young and self-luminous gas giants. Scattering in a horizontally-inhomogeneous atmosphere causes the disk-integrated polarization of the thermal radiation to be linearly polarized, possibly detectable with the newest generation of high-contrast imaging instruments. We aim to investigate the effect of latitudinal and longitudinal cloud variations, circumplanetary disks, atmospheric oblateness, and cloud particle properties on the integrated degree and direction of polarization in the near-infrared. We have developed a three-dimensional Monte Carlo radiative transfer code (ARTES) for scattered light simulations in (exo)planetary atmospheres. The code is applicable to calculations of reflected light and thermal radiation in a spherical grid with a parameterized distribution of gas, clouds, hazes, and circumplanetary material. The disk-integrated degree of polarization of a horizontally-inhomogeneous atmosphere is maximal when the planet is flattened, the optical thickness of the equatorial clouds is large compared to the polar clouds, and the clouds are located at high altitude. For a flattened planet, the integrated polarization can both increase or decrease with respect to a spherical planet which depends on the horizontal distribution and optical thickness of the clouds. The direction of polarization can be either parallel or perpendicular to the projected direction of the rotation axis when clouds are zonally distributed. Rayleigh scattering by submicron-sized cloud particles will maximize the polarimetric signal whereas the integrated degree of polarization is significantly reduced with micron-sized cloud particles as a result of forward scattering. The presence of a cold or hot circumplanetary disk may also produce a detectable degree of polarization ($\lesssim$1%) even with a uniform cloud layer in the atmosphere.

Pub.: 28 Jun '17, Pinned: 30 Jun '17