Planetary Atmospheres

Areas of Expertise

 

Core competencies in the area of planetary and exoplanetary atmospheric research at JPL include:

  • Radiative transfer theory and remote sensing
  • Atmospheric chemistry and composition, dynamics, structure, optics, and evolution
  • Atmospheric process numerical modeling
  • Atmospheric data analysis
  • Image processing and scientific visualization

 


Selected Current Missions

 

JPL researchers in planetary and exoplanetary atmospheres are actively involved in space missions planned for, or in operation in, the Solar System:

 

Inner Solar System

  • Mars Science Laboratory
  • Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
  • Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter
  • InSight
  • Mars 2020
  • ExoMars

 

Outer Solar System

  • Cassini
  • Juno
  • Rosetta

 

Recently published work covers Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, outer planetary satellites and planetary rings, surface-bound exospheres, comets, asteroids, and exoplanetary atmospheres.

 


Selected Research and Development Efforts

 

Modeling the Atmospheres of Earth-Like Extrasolar Planets

Artist concept of JWST with near-IR spectrum plots
Comparison of the near-infrared spectrum of an abiotic, but otherwise Earth-like extrasolar planet to that of Earth, as if it were viewed as an extrasolar planet by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).  Several spectral features distinguish a planet with life, like Earth, from planetary bodies without life, including, here, absorption features due to ozone (O3), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). Background image is an artist’s rendition of JWST in its fully deployed form.
 

Nearly 2000 planets outside of our Solar System have been discovered to date, and new telescopes on Earth and in space could allow us to find and characterize even more exoplanets. Future observations from telescopes and other instruments such as by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), could focus on Earth-like exoplanets as they are the strongest candidates to harbor life as we know it. An important indicator for life is the existence of oxygen, and its photochemical byproduct ozone, in an exoplanet’s atmosphere. However, abiotic (devoid of life) processes also can produce oxygen and ozone.  Scientists at JPL use computer models to simulate possible temperature structures and compositions of exoplanetary atmospheres and quantify the abiotic production of oxygen and ozone. The results are used to calculate spectra as they would be observed by JWST in order to evaluate the detectability of atmospheric constituents, helping to avoid ‘false positive’ detections of life in exoplanet observations.

 

 

Comets and the Origin of the Solar System

Image of Comet 67P
An image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (Comet “CG”) taken by Rosetta’s Navigation cameras on 3 February 2015, when the spacecraft was about 30 km from the comet.  Plumes of outgassing volatiles and dust can be observed towards the upper left of the frame.
 

JPL designed, built, and operated a small radio telescope called MIRO (Microwave Instrument for the Rosetta Orbiter) aboard the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to a comet, and leads the international team of scientists interpreting the data. The Rosetta spacecraft was launched in 2004, spent 10 years getting to its primary target, and spent two years at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, or "CG" for short.  

A comet has three main components: a solid nucleus made up of a mixture of ice, rock and organic compounds; a gaseous coma surrounding the nucleus, formed from the nucleus ices sublimating to gas; and dust (plus larger chunks) in the coma, which are solid particles lifted off the surface by the escaping gas. MIRO will use radio waves to study all three components, and how they interact, until the end of the Rosetta mission in 2016.  Scientists hope to learn how comets formed, what they are made of, and how they evolve over time.  MIRO has been mapping the amount of gas and dust coming from various parts of the nucleus, and the temperature and velocity of the gases as they move into the coma.  Working with scientists using all the other instruments on Rosetta, as well as the instruments that were aboard the Philae lander (which Rosetta deployed onto the surface of the comet in November 2014), researchers at JPL are learning about how our solar system formed and what processes created the wonderfully bizarre surface of Comet CG.