Carbon planets and diamond clouds

Could diamond planets exist? Probably not, but what about carbon-planets in more general terms? So far, almost all discovered planets were oxygen-rich. The quest about carbon-rich planets touches fundamental question of astrophysics, including how stars formed in the early universe and how planets form in disks around young stars. Ultimately and somewhat surprisingly perhaps, we are required to understand what kind of clouds form in atmospheres of carbon-rich planets in order to disentangle existing observations or to predict possible observations, because clouds do act like an optical and a thermal blanket to the planet below it. Therefore, Helling, Tootill, Woitke & Lee (2016) set out to model cloud formation in carbon-rich atmospheres. They find that the material composition and, hence, the appearance of carbon-rich planets (possibly WASP-12b or HR 8799 b, c, d, e) drastically differs from the well-studied oxygen-rich giant gas planets (like HD 189733b or HD 209458b). They show, that only the very inner parts of a carbon-cloud could possibly be made of diamond crystals, making it a rather darkish type of planet.

Stars come with all sorts of chemical ‘tastes’: Those with more oxygen than carbon (called ‘oxygen-rich’), and those with more carbon than oxygen (called ‘carbon-rich’). Stars in the present universe are born as oxygen-rich and only change to carbon-rich at later stages in their life-time when they become giant stars with diameters of hundreds of stellar radii. Therefore, extrasolar planets are expected to be oxygen-rich.

Observations start to indicate that some extrasolar planets maybe carbon-rich, or at least have enough carbon-molecules in their atmospheres so that our telescopes can see them. For example, WASP-12b was suggested to be carbon- rich (Madhusudhan et al. 2011) but a second observation could not confirm that finding (Kreidberg et al. 2015). Four planets of the planetary system HR 8799 have tentative detections of C2H2, CH4, and CO2, all rather large carbon-binding molecules (Opennheimer et al. 2013).

Planets only form in disks around young stars and young stars are oxygen-rich. Stars only turn carbon-rich at later ages. So, why should carbon-rich planets exist at all?

Figure 1: The top panels show the material composition that we predict from our cloud models in per cent: 1.0 means that the cloud particles are made to 100% of this material (e.g. Al2O3 – light blue, carbon – grey) and 0.2 means that the cloud particles contain 20% of that material (e.g. Mg2SiO4 or MgSiO3 – yellow/orange). Different lines represent different materials. The lower pictures visualize how the cloud would look like if we were able to observe it more closely: An oxygen-rich giant planet (left) would sparkle in different colours while a carbon-rich planet would look rather dull and dark-grey.

Figure 1: The top panels show the material composition that we predict from our cloud models in per cent: 1.0 means that the cloud particles are made to 100% of this material (e.g. Al2O3 – light blue, carbon – grey) and 0.2 means that the cloud particles contain 20% of that material (e.g. Mg2SiO4 or MgSiO3 – yellow/orange). Different lines represent different materials. The lower pictures visualize how the cloud would look like if we were able to observe it more closely: An oxygen-rich giant planet (left) would sparkle in different colours while a carbon-rich planet would look rather dull and dark-grey (Helling et al. 2016).

Here are three ideas how this could work:

1) Extremely carbon-rich stars formed in very early universe (Mashian & Loeb 2016). These carbon-rich stars were young at some point and may therefore have formed carbon-rich planets. The problem with that hypothesis is that our Sun is oxygen-rich and not that old. The Sun is a young star compared to the stars we know of in our present universe. It is therefore highly unlikely that any presently observable carbon-rich planet has formed in the early universe.

2) Carbon-rich stars in our present-day universe bath their originally oxygen- rich planets in a strong wind that carries large amounts of carbon-rich gas and dust. As this wind continues to hit the planets atmosphere, it increases slowly but steady its carbon content and appear as carbon-rich at some point. The obvious conclusion is that all carbon-rich stars with strong mass losses should have carbon-rich planets. This has not been observed so far.

What are we left with? We need to take a closer look at the star and planet formation processes and see whether chemical niches appear that allow us to explain the possible emergence of carbon-rich planets or episodes of carbon- enrichment. In other words, we need to study how the local chemistry changes in planet-forming disks that emerge around young stars in order to conserve the angular momentum of the collapsing gas-cloud that will form a young star. This local chemistry will play a large role in determining what kind of planets will form in such disks. Hence, the beauty lies in the detail.

Knowing about the problem, we have merged our expertise in atmosphere modelling (Christiane Helling) and planet-forming disk modelling (Peter Woitke). Through this work, published in the Life journal in 2014, we realized that we need to understand cloud formation a lot better in order to be able to say if the chemical composition of a planetary atmosphere would be carbon-rich or oxygen-rich.

In Helling, Tootill, Woitke & Lee 2016 we worked out a model that would allow us to predict how clouds form in carbon- rich atmospheres. The oxygen-rich case was well studied already and we could build on our experiences with it.

Figure 1 visualises our main results. The left-hand panel shows the results for the cloud layer that forms in an oxygen-rich atmosphere of a planet, the right-hand side shows the cloud forming in the carbon-rich planet. Here are the three main observations from Figure 1:

a) Clouds in oxygen-rich atmospheres are made of 40% silicates like Mg2SiO4 and MgSiO3, 20% SiO, 10% iron, with the remaining 30% being a mix of other materials.

b) Clouds in carbon-rich planets would be made of a minimum of 60% carbon with the remaining 40% (or less!) being a mix of other carbon-binding materials and iron.

c) While silicate clouds in oxygen-rich atmospheres are semi-transparent at the top and dark further inside, carbon-clouds are graphite-black at the top and diamond-clear further inside.

It appears that an oxygen-rich planet with strong winds should be much more beautiful to observe because many mineral cloud particles could appear in many colours. Carbon-rich planets would look rather dull and grey in comparison.

For more details check out the original paper on ADS:

Helling, Tootill, Woitke & Lee 2016, eprint arXiv:1612.01863

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