Characterization of Exoplanet Atmospheres with the Optical Coronagraph on WFIRST

B. Lacy, D. Shlivko, A. Burrows

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST)-CGI is a NASA technology demonstration mission that is charged with demonstrating key technologies for future exo-Earth imaging missions in space. In the process, it will obtain images and low-resolution spectra of a handful to a dozen extrasolar planets and possibly protoplanetary disks. Its unprecedented contrast levels in the optical will provide astronomers' with their first direct look at mature, Jupiter-sized planets at moderate separations. This paper addresses the question: what science can be done with such data? An analytic noise model, which is informed by the ongoing engineering developments, is used to compute maximum achievable signal-to-noise ratios and scientifically viable integration times for hypothetical star-planet systems, as well as to investigate the constraining power of various combinations of WFIRST-CGI photometric and spectral observations. This work introduces two simple models for planetary geometric albedos, which are inspired largely by the solar system's gas giants. The first planet model is a hybrid Jupiter-Neptune model, which separately treats the short and long wavelengths where chromophores and methane dominate absorption, respectively. The second planet model fixes cloud and haze properties in CoolTLusty to match Jupiter's albedo spectrum, it then perturbs only the metallicity. MCMC retrievals performed on simulated observations are used to assess the precision with which planet model parameters can be measured subject to different exposure times and observing cases. Planet radius is recovered within ±15% for all observing cases with both the hybrid model and the CoolTLusty metallicity grid. Fit results for both models' parameterizations of geometric albedo spectra demonstrate that a rough indication of the metallicity or methane content should be possible for some WFIRST-CGI targets. We conclude that real observations will likely be able to differentiate between extreme cases using these models, but will lack the precision necessary to uncover subtle trends.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number132
JournalAstronomical Journal
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2019
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • planets and satellites: atmospheres
  • planets and satellites: composition
  • planets and satellites: detection
  • planets and satellites: gaseous planets


Dive into the research topics of 'Characterization of Exoplanet Atmospheres with the Optical Coronagraph on WFIRST'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this