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Atmospheric mass loss due to giant impacts: the importance of the thermal component for hydrogen-helium envelopes.

  • Author(s): Biersteker, John B
  • Schlichting, Hilke E
  • et al.

Systems of close-in super-Earths and mini-Neptunes display striking diversity in planetary bulk density and composition. Giant impacts are expected to play a role in the formation of many of these worlds. Previous works, focused on the mechanical shock caused by a giant impact, have shown that these impacts can eject large fractions of the planetary envelope, offering a partial explanation for the observed spread in exoplanet compositions. Here, we examine the thermal consequences of giant impacts, and show that the atmospheric loss caused by these effects can significantly exceed that caused by mechanical shocks for hydrogen-helium (H/He) envelopes. Specifically, when a giant impact occurs, part of the impact energy is converted into thermal energy, heating the rocky core and the envelope. We find that the ensuing thermal expansion of the envelope can lead to a period of sustained, rapid mass loss through a Parker wind, resulting in the partial or complete erosion of the H/He envelope. The fraction of the envelope mass lost depends on the planet's orbital distance from its host star and its initial thermal state, and hence age. Planets closer to their host stars are more susceptible to thermal atmospheric loss triggered by impacts than ones on wider orbits. Similarly, younger planets, with rocky cores which are still hot and molten from formation, suffer greater atmospheric loss. This is especially interesting because giant impacts are expected to occur 10-100 Myr after formation, at a time when super-Earths still retain significant internal heat from formation. For planets where the thermal energy of the core is much greater than the envelope energy, i.e. super-Earths with H/He envelope mass fractions roughly less than 8 per cent, the impactor mass required for significant atmospheric removal is M imp/Mp ~ μ/μc ~ 0.1, approximately the ratio of the heat capacities of the envelope and core. In contrast, when the envelope energy dominates the total energy budget, complete loss can occur when the impactor mass is comparable to the envelope mass.

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