High-Resolution Transmission Spectroscopy of the Terrestrial Exoplanet GJ 486b: Abstract & Introby@exoplanetology

High-Resolution Transmission Spectroscopy of the Terrestrial Exoplanet GJ 486b: Abstract & Intro

tldt arrow

Too Long; Didn't Read

The exoplanet GJ 486b, orbiting an M3.5 star, is expected to have one of the strongest transmission spectroscopy signals among known terrestrial exoplanets.
featured image - High-Resolution Transmission Spectroscopy of the Terrestrial Exoplanet GJ 486b: Abstract & Intro
Exoplanetology Tech: Research on the Study of Planets HackerNoon profile picture

This paper is available on arxiv under CC 4.0 license.


(1) Andrew Ridden-Harper, Department of Astronomy and Carl Sagan Institute, Cornell University & Las Cumbres Observatory;

(2) Stevanus K. Nugroho, Astrobiology Center & Japan & National Astronomical Observatory of Japan;

(3) Laura Flagg, Department of Astronomy and Carl Sagan Institute, Cornell University;

(4) Ray Jayawardhana, Department of Astronomy, Cornell University;

(5) Jake D. Turner, Department of Astronomy and Carl Sagan Institute, Cornell University & NHFP Sagan Fellow;

(6) Ernst de Mooij, Astrophysics Research Centre, School of Mathematics and Physics & Queen’s University Belfast;

(7) Ryan MacDonald, Department of Astronomy and Carl Sagan Institute;

(8) Emily Deibert, David A. Dunlap Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, University of Toronto & Gemini Observatory, NSF’s NOIRLab;

(9) Motohide Tamura, Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, University of Toronto

(10) Takayuki Kotani, Department of Astronomy, Graduate School of Science, The University of Tokyo, Astrobiology Center & National Astronomical Observatory of Japan;

(11) Teruyuki Hirano, Astrobiology Center, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan & Department of Astronomical Science, The Graduate University for Advanced Studies;

(12) Masayuki Kuzuhara, Las Cumbres Observatory & Astrobiology Center;

(13) Masashi Omiya, Las Cumbres Observatory & Astrobiology Center;

(14) Nobuhiko Kusakabe, Las Cumbres Observatory & Astrobiology Center.


Terrestrial exoplanets orbiting M-dwarf stars are promising targets for transmission spectroscopy with existing or near-future instrumentation. The atmospheric composition of such rocky planets remains an open question, especially given the high X-ray and ultraviolet flux from their host M dwarfs that can drive atmospheric escape. The 1.3 R⊕ exoplanet GJ 486b (Teq ∼ 700 K), orbiting an M3.5 star, is expected to have one of the strongest transmission spectroscopy signals among known terrestrial exoplanets. We observed three transits of GJ 486b using three different high-resolution spectrographs: IRD on Subaru, IGRINS on Gemini-South, and SPIRou on the Canada-France-Hawai’i Telescope. We searched for atmospheric absorption from a wide variety of molecular species via the cross-correlation method, but did not detect any robust atmospheric signals. Nevertheless, our observations are sufficiently sensitive to rule out several clear atmospheric scenarios via injection and recovery tests, and extend comparative exoplanetology into the terrestrial regime. Our results suggest that GJ 486b does not possess a clear H2/He-dominated atmosphere, nor a clear 100% water-vapor atmosphere. Other secondary atmospheres with high mean molecular weights or H2/He-dominated atmospheres with clouds remain possible. Our findings provide further evidence suggesting that terrestrial planets orbiting M-dwarf stars may experience significant atmospheric loss.

Keywords: Exoplanet atmospheres (487) — Planetary atmospheres (1244) — Exoplanets (498) — Exoplanet atmospheric composition (2021)


Exoplanets that transit M-dwarf stars produce relatively deep transits due to their high planet-star radius ratios. Consequently, it may be possible to detect biosignatures in the atmospheres of terrestrial exoplanets with existing or near-future instrumentation (e.g., Snellen et al. 2013; Wunderlich et al. 2019). However, the long-term habitability of such planets depends crucially on the stability of their atmospheres, which are subject to high X-ray + extreme UV (XUV) emissions during the pre-main-sequence phase of their M-dwarf hosts (e.g., Shkolnik & Barman 2014; Peacock et al. 2020) as well as flare events (e.g., Neves Ribeiro do Amaral et al. 2022) that can drive atmospheric escape (e.g., Vidal-Madjar et al. 2003; Bourrier et al. 2017a; Airapetian et al. 2017).

Terrestrial exoplanets are expected to exhibit a rich diversity in atmospheric compositions. Exoplanets with Rp < 1.4 R⊕ and orbital periods < 100 days likely form as gas-rich sub-Neptunes that subsequently lose their primordial atmospheres due to photoevaporation (Rogers & Owen 2021). The amount of primordial atmosphere retained depends on several factors, such as their host star’s spectral energy distribution and activity levels, along with how much gas they accrete during formation (e.g., Bolmont et al. 2017; Owen et al. 2020). Should the primordial hydrogen-dominated atmosphere be lost, a secondary atmosphere may be retained. The composition of secondary atmospheres depends on a variety of processes, including interior outgassing, impact delivery, erosion, atmosphere-surface exchange, weathering, and volatile sequestration (e.g., Rogers et al. 2011). Driven by these processes, hot terrestrial planets (T & 1500 K) are predicted to have atmospheres containing atoms and ions, such as Na or Ca+, produced by surface vaporization (Schaefer & Fegley 2009) — though other hydrogen- or nitrogen-rich compositions are possible (Miguel 2019). However, cooler terrestrial planets are likely rich in molecular species, such as H2O, CO2, CO, O2, C2H2, and CH4 (e.g., Ramirez & Kaltenegger 2014; Madhusudhan et al. 2016; Kite & Schaefer 2021). Given the range of theoretical possibilities, observational constraints on the composition of terrestrial exoplanet atmospheres are crucially needed. While there have been several attempts to detect the atmospheres of a few terrestrial exoplanets, these have only yielded constraints from nondetections. For example, 55 Cancri e is a 1.9 R⊕ exoplanet with a temperature of approximately 2400 K due to its 17 hr orbit around its G8V host star (Morris et al. 2021). Hubble Space Telescope observations suggest that 55 Cancri e may possess a thick atmosphere (Tsiaras et al. 2016). However, phase curve observations with the Spitzer space telescope (Demory et al. 2016) and ground-based high-resolution transmission spectroscopy point toward 55 Cancri e not possessing a thick atmosphere or having no atmosphere at all (Ridden-Harper et al. 2016; Esteves et al. 2017; Jindal et al. 2020; Deibert et al. 2021a; Zhang et al. 2021).

A similar result was found for the cooler 1.3 R⊕ exoplanet LHS 3844 b, which has an equilibrium temperature of 800 K and orbits an M5 host star (Vanderspek et al. 2019). Kreidberg et al. (2019) observed the phase curve of LHS 3844 b with the Spitzer space telescope and found that thick atmospheres with surface pressures greater than 10 bar could be ruled out, while less massive atmospheres would be susceptible to erosion by the stellar wind. Additionally, they found that a bare rock model fit their data well.

Another candidate for atmospheric characterization that orbits an M-dwarf is GJ 1132b, which has a radius, mass, and equilibrium temperature of 1.1 R⊕, 1.7 M⊕, and 580 K, respectively (Berta-Thompson et al. 2015). Using transit observations from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), Swain et al. (2021) inferred that GJ 1132b possesses a H/He-rich atmosphere with large-amplitude spectral features. However, using the same HST data, Libby-Roberts et al. (2022) and Mugnai et al. (2021) independently found a featureless transmission spectrum, possibly indicating an atmosphere with a high mean molecular weight (MMW), a high-altitude aerosol layer, or a near-total lack of an atmosphere. These contrasting results highlight the difficulty of characterizing the atmospheres of small planets, even with space-based instrumentation.

Comprehensive searches for the atmospheres of the seven approximately Earth-sized planets that transit the M8V star TRAPPIST-1 have also been carried out. These transit observations with the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes all point toward the absence of extended hydrogen-dominated atmospheres. However, denser, potentially habitable atmospheres are consistent with the observational limits for some TRAPPIST-1 planets (de Wit et al. 2016; Bourrier et al. 2017b,a; de Wit et al. 2018; Zhang et al. 2018; Wakeford et al. 2019; Gressier et al. 2022).

GJ 486b[1] is a 1.3 R⊕ and 2.8 M⊕ exoplanet with an equilibrium temperature of about 700 K, an M3.5 V host star of J-band magnitude 7.2, and an orbital period of 1.5 days (Trifonov et al. 2021). These system properties make GJ 486b well suited to atmospheric characterization with transmission spectroscopy, as reflected by it having one of the largest transmission spectroscopy metrics (as defined by Kempton et al. 2018) of all known terrestrial planets (Trifonov et al. 2021). Therefore, GJ 486b is an ideal observational target to inform our understanding of terrestrial planets around M-dwarf stars.

Previous studies have surmised that a wide range of atmospheric compositions are possible for GJ 486b. Caballero et al. (2022) refined GJ 486b’s mass and radius, and presented a suite of interior and atmospheric models. They showed that possible atmospheres include: (i) a H/He-dominated atmosphere with solar abundances; (ii) a H/He atmosphere with enhanced metallicity (e.g., 100x solar abundances); (iii) a H2O-dominated atmosphere; (iv) a CO2-dominated atmosphere; or (v) bare rock with a tenuous atmosphere, possibly containing Na. Geochemical models based on initial conditions representative of a range of possible planets suggest that a H2O-dominated atmosphere is the most likely outcome for a 3 M⊕ planet like GJ 486b (Ortenzi et al. 2020). However, carbonaceous chondrite outgassing measurements suggest that CO2-dominated atmospheres could also evolve on terrestrial planets (Thompson et al. 2021). Differentiating between these scenarios requires spectroscopic observations.

Molecular species such as those expected to be in GJ 486b’s atmosphere produce dense forests of spectral lines that can be individually resolved with high-resolution spectroscopy. The signals from these lines can be combined, even if they are individually hidden in the noise, by cross-correlating the data with a template containing the molecular lines (e.g., Snellen et al. 2010; Birkby 2018). This powerful technique has facilitated the detection of species such as H2O, CO, HCN, CH4, NH3, and C2H2 in the transmission spectra of hot Jupiters (e.g., Giacobbe et al. 2021). As high-resolution spectroscopy probes line cores, which contain information about the upper (low-pressure) regions of exoplanet atmospheres, it is highly complementary to low-resolution observations from telescopes such as the JWST, which probe higher pressures (Brogi & Line 2019). JWST is scheduled to observe two transits and eclipses of GJ 486b in programs GO 1981[2] (P.I.: K. Stevenson) and GO 1743[3] (P. I.: M. Mansfield), respectively.

Here, we present the first high-resolution transmission spectroscopy observations of GJ 486b. We use three transits to constrain GJ 486b’s atmospheric composition. In what follows, in Sections 2 and 3 we describe our observations and data reduction approach. Section 4 describes our model spectra, while Section 5 describes our cross-correlation methodology. Section 6 presents our results, while Section 8 discusses the implications of our results for the upcoming JWST observations. Finally, Section 9 offers concluding remarks.

[1] Alternative names include Wolf 437b and TOI 1827b.