Clouds and Hazes in Exoplanets and Brown Dwarfs
The formation of clouds significantly alters the spectra of cool substellar atmospheres from terrestrial planets to brown dwarfs. In cool planets like Earth and Jupiter, volatile species like water and ammonia condense to form ice clouds. In hot planets and brown dwarfs, iron and silicates instead condense, forming dusty clouds. Irradiated methane-rich planets may have substantial hydrocarbon hazes. During my dissertation, I have studied the impact of clouds and hazes in a variety of substellar objects. First, I present results for cool brown dwarfs in- cluding clouds previously neglected in model atmospheres. Model spectra that include sulfide and salt clouds can match the spectra of T dwarf atmospheres; water ice clouds will alter the spectra of the newest and coldest brown dwarfs, the Y dwarfs. These sulfide/salt and ice clouds potentially drive spectroscopic variability in these cool objects, and this variability should be distinguishable from variability caused by hot spots.
Next, I present results for small, cool exoplanets between the size of Earth and Neptune. They likely have sulfide and salt clouds and also have photochemical hazes caused by stellar irradiation. Vast resources have been dedicated to characterizing the handful of super Earths and Neptunes accessible to current telescopes, yet of the planets smaller than Neptune studied to date, all have radii in the near-infrared consistent with being constant in wavelength, likely showing that these small planets are consistently enshrouded in thick hazes and clouds. For the super Earth GJ 1214b, very thick, lofted clouds of salts or sulfides in high metallicity (1000× solar) atmospheres create featureless transmission spectra in the near-infrared. Photochemical hazes also create featureless transmission spectra at lower metallicities. For the Neptune-sized GJ 436b, its thermal emission and transmission spectra combine indicate a high metallicity atmosphere, potentially heated by tides and affected by disequilibrium chemistry. I show that despite the challenges, there are promising avenues for understanding small planets: by observing thermal emission and reflected light, we can break the degeneracies and con- strain the atmospheric compositions. These future observations will provide rich diagnostics of molecules and clouds in small planets.