Do exoplanets have an ionosphere? What does a brown dwarf need to form aurorae even without a companion? Isabel Rodriguez-Barrera and colleagues, including Christiane Helling and former member Craig Stark from the LEAP group, investigated whether it is possible to create a magnetized plasma, a medium composed of positive and negative charges but with an overall neutral electric property. The production of magnetized plasma would allow the creation of ionospheres and electromagnetic phenomena such as aurorae.
The ionosphere is the upper part of a planetary atmosphere created by the ionizing effects of stellar UV and X-ray radiation. Its importance inheres in atmospheric electricity and radio wave propagation, but also the shielding of the inner atmosphere from stellar UV radiation. The following study showed what conditions a planetary atmosphere (that is an atmosphere from a planet or a planet like object like a brown dwarf) should fulfil to produce an ionosphere or, in case of brown dwarfs, a chromosphere, such as the spectacular example of the solar chromosphere.
Radio, X-ray and Hα emission from brown dwarfs have been observed in the recent years (e.g. 2MASS J10475385+2124234 by Route & Wolszczan 2012; 2MASS J13153094-2649513AB by Burgasser et al. 2013). Similar observations are not yet available for extrasolar planets. In case of the Sun, observations of these emissions (radio, X-ray and Hα) are tracers of the solar chromosphere. These observations suggest that brown dwarfs contain ionized gas and host very strong magnetic fields, which are both needed to explain, for example, the radio emission. The aim of our study is to identify ultra-cool objects (with effective temperatures less than ~3000 K; Fig. 1.) that are most susceptible to processes leading to instabilities that trigger the emergence of strong plasma, a neutral state of matter composed of equal number of positive and negative ions.
Our theoretical work proposes a method of analysing the ionization and magnetic coupling state of objects with ultra-cool atmospheres. Our particular interest focuses on late M-dwarfs, brown dwarfs and giant gas planets.
To determine the fraction of atmosphere that can be ionized, first Rodriguez-Barrera et al. consider thermal ionization only. Thermal ionization results from collisions between the gas particles according to the local gas temperature, therefore here we do not consider external ionizing affects from companions. Sources of possible irradiation are the host star in the case of planets, and a white dwarf in the case of a white dwarf – brown dwarf binary (for example WD0137-349B, Casewell et al. 2015). Such external affects can be later compared to the results of our reference study. We use the Drift-Phoenix model atmosphere grid where the local atmospheric structure is determined by the following global parameters: Teff (effective temperature), log(g) (surface gravity) and [M/H] (metallicity).
Rodriguez-Barrera et al. show that ultra-cool atmospheres with high Teff , or with high metallicity and low log(g) have large fraction of atmospheric volume where plasma processes occur, and so they are the best candidates for radio, X-ray and Hα emissions, observed from various objects as was mentioned above.
M-dwarfs have a considerable degree of ionization throughout the whole atmosphere, the degree of thermal ionization for a L-dwarf is low but high enough to seed other local ionization processes like Alfven ionization (see Stark et al. 2013) or electrostatic discharges, such as lightning, as seen on Fig. 2.
We show that the first criterion to form chromospheres, ionospheres or an aurora on an extrasolar planets or brown dwarf, namely a small but sufficient degree of ionization, can be fulfilled by thermal ionization alone without the need for additional processes. But is it possible to magnetise this ionized plasma? The second part of our study says yes! The results also give an idea of how well the different types of atmospheres can be magnetized (Fig. 3): The minimum threshold for the magnetic flux density required for electrons and ions to be magnetised is smaller than typical values of the global magnetic field strengths of a brown dwarf and a giant gas planet. This means the ionized plasma inside the atmosphere can be magnetised quite easily. A considerably lower magnetic flux density is required for magnetic coupling of the atmosphere in the rarefied upper atmosphere than in the dense inner atmosphere, meaning magnetising the plasma in the upper atmosphere is easier than in the inner parts of the atmosphere. The magnetic coupling works equally for electrons and atomic ions like Mg+ and Fe+ (Fig. 3).
To sum it up, our results suggest that it is not unreasonable to expect ultra-cool atmospheres (M-dwarfs and L & T brown dwarfs) to emit Hα or even in radio wavelength. We showed that, in particular, the rarefied upper parts of the atmospheres fulfil quite easily the plasma criteria despite having low degrees of ionization also in the case of giant gas planets. Therefore the results suggest that an ionosphere may emerge also in brown dwarf and giant gas planet atmospheres, and that the built-up of a chromosphere on brown dwarfs is likely too. Both effects will contribute to atmospheric weather features and to space weather occurrence in extrasolar, planet-like objects. An interesting result is that ultra-cool atmospheres could also drive auroral emission without the need for a companion’s wind (e.g. aurora on Earth triggered by solar wind) or an outgassing moon (e.g. aurora on Jupiter is triggered by its outgassing moon Io).
We further studied which of the gas species might be the best electron donors. Na+, K+ and Ca+ are the dominating electron donors in low-density atmospheres (low log(g), solar metallicity) independent of Teff. Mg+ and Fe+ dominate the thermal ionization in the inner parts of M-dwarf atmospheres. Molecules remain unimportant for thermal ionization. Chemical processes (e.g. cloud formation, cosmic ray ionization) that affect the abundances of Na, K, Mg, Ca and Fe will have a direct impact on the state of ionization in ultra-cool atmospheres.
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