Ocean Planet or Thick Atmosphere: On the Mass-Radius Relationship for Solid Exoplanets with Massive Atmospheres
The bulk composition of an exoplanet is commonly inferred from its average density. For small planets, however, the average density is not unique within the range of compositions. Variations of a number of important planetary parameters—which are difficult or impossible to constrain from measurements alone—produce planets with the same average densities but widely varying bulk compositions. We find that adding a gas envelope equivalent to 0.1%-10% of the mass of a solid planet causes the radius to increase 5%-60% above its gas-free value. A planet with a given mass and radius might have substantial water ice content (a so-called ocean planet), or alternatively a large rocky iron core and some H and/or He. For example, a wide variety of compositions can explain the observed radius of GJ 436b, although all models require some H/He. We conclude that the identification of water worlds based on the mass-radius relationship alone is impossible unless a significant gas layer can be ruled out by other means.