Large Interferometer For Exoplanets (LIFE). IX. Assessing the impact of clouds on atmospheric retrievals at mid-infrared wavelengths with a Venus-twin exoplanet
Context. Terrestrial exoplanets in the habitable zone are likely a common occurrence. The long-term goal is to characterize the atmospheres of dozens of such objects. The Large Interferometer For Exoplanets (LIFE) initiative aims to develop a space-based mid-infrared (MIR) nulling interferometer to measure the thermal emission spectra of such exoplanets.
Aims: We investigate how well LIFE could characterize a cloudy Venus-twin exoplanet. This allows us to: (1) test our atmospheric retrieval routine on a realistic non-Earth-like MIR emission spectrum of a known planet, (2) investigate how clouds impact retrievals, and (3) further refine the LIFE requirements derived in previous Earth-centered studies.
Methods: We ran Bayesian atmospheric retrievals for simulated LIFE observations of a Venus-twin exoplanet orbiting a Sun-like star located 10 pc from the observer. The LIFESIM noise model accounted for all major astrophysical noise sources. We ran retrievals using different models (cloudy and cloud-free) and analyzed the performance as a function of the quality of the LIFE observation. This allowed us to determine how well the atmosphere and clouds are characterizable depending on the quality of the spectrum.
Results: At the current minimal resolution (R = 50) and signal-to-noise (S /N = 10 at 11.2 μ m) requirements for LIFE, all tested models suggest a CO2-rich atmosphere (≥30% in mass fraction). Further, we successfully constrain the atmospheric pressure-temperature (P-T) structure above the cloud deck (P-T uncertainty ≤ ± 15 K). However, we struggle to infer the main cloud properties. Further, the retrieved planetary radius (Rpl), equilibrium temperature (Teq), and Bond albedo (AB) depend on the model. Generally, a cloud-free model performs best at the current minimal quality and accurately estimates Rpl, Teq, and AB. If we consider higher quality spectra (especially S/N = 20), we can infer the presence of clouds and pose first constraints on their structure.
Conclusions: Our study shows that the minimal R and S/N requirements for LIFE suffice to characterize the structure and composition of a Venus-like atmosphere above the cloud deck if an adequate model is chosen. Crucially, the cloud-free model is preferred by the retrieval for low spectral qualities. We thus find no direct evidence for clouds at the minimal R and S/N requirements and cannot infer the thickness of the atmosphere. Clouds are only constrainable in MIR retrievals of spectra with S/N ≥ 20. The model dependence of our retrieval results emphasizes the importance of developing a community-wide best-practice for atmospheric retrieval studies.
Astronomy and Astrophysics
- Pub Date:
- May 2023
- methods: statistical;
- planets and satellites: terrestrial planets;
- planets and satellites: atmospheres;
- Astrophysics - Earth and Planetary Astrophysics;
- Astrophysics - Instrumentation and Methods for Astrophysics
- Accepted for publication in A&