Transit Spectroscopy, Biosignature Searches, and the Myth of Perfect Stars

Can we detect atmospheric biosignatures in the next two decades? Only if we can meet a major, newly-recognized challenge to our studies of exoplanet atmospheric composition.

Over the past years the Hubble Space Telescope has proven to be our most powerful tool to probe the atmospheres of transiting exoplanets: the comparison of spectra taken before and during the transits can reveal the compositions of the atmospheres. Exciting discoveries included condensate clouds, hazes, extremely efficient scatterers, molecules (water, methane, and carbon-dioxide), and atoms (sodium and potassium). Some of the most ambitious research programs are pushing this technology to levels never envisioned previously as they reach spectacularly precise measurements on increasingly small planets. This technique may even allow the detection of water vapor in the habitable zone earth-sized planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system with HST and additional gases with JWST.

But underpinning these measurements is an approximation that is called in question now – in fact, one that we show is wrong for typical systems.

Astrophysicists focusing on exoplanets often assume that the planet host stars are perfect. As we show in our new paper, led by Steward Observatory graduate student Ben Rackham, this assumption is underpinning high-precision transit spectroscopy. In reality, stellar heterogeneity contaminates exoplanet transmission spectra (HST and JWST) and — unless we figure out how to correct for this effect — it will greatly limit our ability to search for biosignatures in the next two decades.


Because transit measurements are relative measurements stellar spectra cancels out – in the first order approximation:  the difference of a spectrum taken before transit and during transit will provide the transmission spectrum of the exoplanet atmosphere.


It is tempting to think that this approximation holds with infinite precision: in fact, the majority of the transit spectroscopy papers in the literature simply adopt this approximation without further considerations. This may be OK for the typical, less precise measurements, but remains a dangerous assumption for high-precision studies and for all but the least active stars.

In reality, the stellar spectrum does not cancel out in transmission spectroscopy, because the first-order approximation described above confusingly equates two different light sources: the stellar disk (the spectrum of which is observed before the transit) and the actual light source, which is just a very small fraction of the stellar disk — the projection of the transit chord onto the stellar photosphere (see figure).

Mercury’s transit in front of the Sun illustrates that even quiet stars are heterogeneous on the fine length scale of exoplanets.

Stars are not perfect: in reality, no patch of the stellar photosphere has the same exact spectrum as the stellar chord. The difference between the assumed lightsource (stellar disk) and the actual lightsource of unknown spectrum (photosphere under the chord) imprints itself onto the transmission spectrum observed.

The effect itself is not new: Some of the best published studies tried to develop a correction for the suspected stellar contamination. In doing so, almost all groups assumed a linear relation between the photometric variability of the stars and the covering fraction (basically: more variability means more spots).

In our new paper we worked with Mark Giampapa — a solar/stellar astrophysicist —  on the first comprehensive study of this effect and its impact on transit spectra and exoplanet density measurements.

This project brought about important, surprising, and concerning results.

Our team — part of the larger Earths in Other Solar Systems project — has created toy models of a star with starspots and faculae to assess the connection between stellar variability and stellar spot covering fraction; we then used state-of-the-art stellar atmospheric models to predict the stellar contamination in the transit spectra of the planets, which we then compared with atmospheric absorbers (including biosignatures) that could be detected in transmission spectra now and in the near future. Finally we also assessed the impact of the apparent size (and therefore density) of the exoplanets: could starspots lead to an apparently lower planet density (more volatiles/gaseous envelope)?

Photometric variability amplitudes are very poor tracers of stellar spot/facula coverage.

Our findings are detailed here, but the key points are:

  • The amplitude of stellar variability (photometrically determined brightness variations) that is sometimes used as a basis to argue for low spot covering fractions is an extremely poor measure of the stellar heterogeneity: the linear correlation many published papers assume is wrong in most cases.
  • Considering the actual spot covering fraction range that typical stellar variability amplitude really translates to, a much broader range of stellar contamination is possible than previously considered.
  • The contamination is not only limited to changing the slope of the spectrum (which is the effect most are aware of), but it will also introduce spectral features – especially for red dwarf host stars, whose spectra are rich in molecular features. The results are concerning: without additional information, it can be extremely difficult or downright impossible to distinguish water absorption in the star from water absorption in the planet. We find that even molecules not present in the stellar photosphere (O2 and O3) are difficult to identify given the large contamination from the star.
  • For TRAPPIST-1, currently the most exciting planetary system for transit spectroscopy studies, we predict that stellar contamination could be 4-7 times greater than the intrinsic planetary features.
  • Finally, we also show that for host stars with a larger number of spots, the planet density calculated will be too low – errors as larger as 15-25% are to be expected. The error is huge if one’s goal is to understand the possible composition of a small, mostly rocky planet; but less of a problem for hot jupiters.

Expected range of stellar contamination for M-type stars. The contamination can suppress or mimic several of the key absorbers expected from planetary atmospheres, including water and oxygen.

The stellar contamination in transit spectra can be very significant: in fact, our predictions are that the contamination levels are high enough the be present in numerous Hubble Space Telescope studies already published.

How can we recognize and distinguish stellar contamination from genuine planetary atmospheric features?

We are working on this and testing multiple ideas; multi-epoch data, high-resolution spectra, and better understanding of the spot and facula properties are likely to be part of the solution. Of course, the larger fraction of the exoplanet community thinks about this challenge, the more likely it is that we can solve the problem to inform upcoming Hubble and James Webb Space Telescope observations, which may then lead us to sampling habitable zone exo-earth atmospheres within the next five years.

Further reading: Rackham, Apai, Giampapa 2017 Astrophysical Journal, in press (arXiv)

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