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From Dust to Dust: Protoplanetary Disk Accretion, Hot Jupiter Climates, and the Evaporation of Rocky Planets


This dissertation is composed of three independent projects in astrophysics concerning phenomena that are concurrent with the birth, life, and death of planets. In Chapters 1 & 2, we study surface layer accretion in protoplanetary disks driven stellar X-ray and far-ultraviolet (FUV) radiation. In Chapter 3, we identify the dynamical mechanisms that control atmospheric heat redistribution on hot Jupiters. Finally, in Chapter 4, we characterize the death of low-mass, short-period rocky planets by their evaporation into a dusty wind.

Chapters 1 & 2: Whether protoplanetary disks accrete at observationally significant rates by the magnetorotational instability (MRI) depends on how well ionized they are. We find that disk surface layers ionized by stellar X-rays are susceptible to charge neutralization by condensates—ranging from μm-sized dust to angstrom-sized polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Ion densities in X-ray-irradiated surfaces are so low that ambipolar diffusion weakens the MRI. In contrast, ionization by stellar FUV radiation enables full-blown MRI turbulence in disk surface layers. Far-UV ionization of atomic carbon and sulfur produces a plasma so dense that it is immune to ion recombination on grains and PAHs. Even though the FUV-ionized layer is ∼10–100 times more turbulent than the X-ray-ionized layer, mass accretion rates of both layers are comparable because FUV photons penetrate to lower surface densities than do X-rays. We conclude that surface layer accretion occurs at observationally significant rates at radii ≥ 1–10 AU. At smaller radii, both X-ray- and FUV-ionized surface layers cannot sustain the accretion rates generated at larger distance and an additional means of transport is needed. In the case of transitional disks, it could be provided by planets.

Chapter 3: Infrared light curves of transiting hot Jupiters present a trend in which the atmospheres of the hottest planets are less efficient at redistributing the stellar energy absorbed on their daysides than colder planets. Here we present a shallow water model of the atmospheric dynamics on synchronously rotating planets that explains why heat redistribution efficiency drops as stellar insolation rises. To interpret the model, we develop a scaling theory which shows that the timescale for gravity waves to propagate horizontally over planetary scales, τwave, plays a dominant role in controlling the transition from small to large temperature contrasts. This implies that heat redistribution is governed by a wave-like process, similar to the one responsible for the weak temperature gradients in the Earth‘s tropics. When atmospheric drag can be neglected, the transition from small to large day-night temperature contrasts occurs when τwave ∼ (τrad/ω)½, where τrad is the radiative relaxation time of the atmosphere and ω is the planetary rotation frequency. Our results subsume the more widely used timescale comparison for estimating heat redistribution efficiency between τrad and the horizontal day-night advection timescale, τadv.

Chapter 4: Short-period exoplanets can have dayside surface temperatures surpassing 2000 K, hot enough to vaporize rock and drive a thermal wind. Small enough planets evaporate completely. Here we construct a radiative-hydrodynamic model of atmospheric escape from strongly irradiated, low-mass rocky planets, accounting for dust-gas energy exchange in the wind. Rocky planets with masses ≤ 0.1 MEarth (less than twice the mass of Mercury) and surface temperatures $≥ 2000 K are found to disintegrate entirely in ≤ 10 Gyr. When our model is applied to Kepler planet candidate KIC 12557548b—which is believed to be a rocky body evaporating at a rate of dM/dt ≥ 0.1 MEarth/Gyr—our model yields a present-day planet mass of ≤ 0.02 MEarth or less than about twice the mass of the Moon. Mass loss rates depend so strongly on planet mass that bodies can reside on close-in orbits for Gyrs with initial masses comparable to or less than that of Mercury, before entering a final short-lived phase of catastrophic mass loss (which KIC 12557548b has entered). We estimate that for every object like KIC 12557548b, there should be 10–100 close-in quiescent progenitors with sub-day periods whose hard-surface transits may be detectable by Kepler—if the progenitors are as large as their maximal, Mercury-like sizes. KIC 12557548b may have lost ∼70% of its formation mass; today we may be observing its naked iron core.

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