Helium-enhanced planets along the upper edge of the radius valley
The Kepler survey revealed that the radius distribution of sub-Neptunes is bimodal: there is a scarcity of planets between 1.5 and 2.0 R⊕. However, the mechanism that creates the valley is unknown. The low mean densities of sub-Neptunes imply that they formed within a few million years and accreted primordial envelopes. Because these planets receive X-ray and UV fluxes comparable to the gravitational binding energy of their envelopes, their atmospheres are susceptible to mass loss. We model the thermal and compositional evolution of sub-Neptunes undergoing escape with diffusive separation between hydrogen and helium and show that preferential loss of hydrogen can change their atmospheric compositions. Planets with radii between 1.6 and 2.5 R⊕ can obtain atmospheric helium mass fractions in excess of 40% from billions of years of photoevaporation. Such enhancement can be detected through transmission spectroscopy, providing a novel observational test to determine whether atmospheric escape creates the radius valley.
- Pub Date:
- January 2023