Space-based infrared interferometry to study exoplanetary atmospheres


The quest for other habitable worlds and the search for life among them are major goals of modern astronomy. One way to make progress towards these goals is to obtain high-quality spectra of a large number of exoplanets over a broad range of wavelengths. While concepts currently investigated in the United States are focused on visible/NIR wavelengths, where the planets are probed in reflected light, a compelling alternative to characterize planetary atmospheres is the mid-infrared waveband (5–20 μm). Indeed, mid-infrared observations provide key information on the presence of an atmosphere, the surface conditions (e.g., temperature, pressure, habitability), and the atmospheric composition in important species such as H2O, CO2, O3, CH4, and N2O. This information is essential to investigate the potential habitability of exoplanets and to make progress towards the search for life in the Universe. Obtaining high-quality mid-infrared spectra of exoplanets from the ground is however extremely challenging due to the overwhelming brightness and turbulence of the Earth’s atmosphere. In this paper, we present a concept of space-based mid-infrared interferometer that can tackle this observing challenge and discuss the main technological developments required to launch such a sophisticated instrument.

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This work was partly funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Program (ERC Grant Agreement n. 337569) and by the French Community of Belgium through an ARC grant for Concerted Research Action. DD and OA acknowledge funding from the FRS-FNRS. Some of research described in this publication was carried out in part at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Part of this work has been carried out within the frame of the National Center for Competence in Research PlanetS supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation. SPQ acknowledges the financial support of the SNSF. NCS was supported by Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT, Portugal) through national funds and by FEDER through COMPETE2020 in the context of the projects and grants reference UID/FIS/04434/2013 & POCI-01-0145-FEDER-007672, PTDC/FIS-AST/1526/2014 & POCI-01-0145-FEDER-016886, and IF/00169/2012/CP0150/CT0002. SL acknowledges support from ERC Starting Grant n. 639248. SK acknowledges support from an STFC Rutherford Fellowship (ST/J004030/1) and ERC Starting Grant n. 639889.

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This article is part of the Topical Collection on Future of Optical-infrared Interferometry in Europe

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Defrère, D., Léger, A., Absil, O. et al. Space-based infrared interferometry to study exoplanetary atmospheres. Exp Astron 46, 543–560 (2018).

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  • Space interferometer
  • Infrared astronomy
  • Darwin
  • TPF-I
  • Exoplanet
  • Habitability
  • Bio-signatures