Artificial lava in the laboratory helps the exploration of exoplanets

The era of exploration by the new James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – a volcanic hot, is heating up.

An interdisciplinary group of Cornell University researchers has modeled and fabricated lava in the lab as the types of rocks that might form on distant exoplanets. They developed 16 types of surface structures as a starting catalog for finding volcanic worlds characterized by fiery landscapes and magma oceans.

Cornell scientists have compiled physical properties of lava in a lab furnace to create a new catalog to help James Webb Space Telescope researchers find volcanic exoplanets. Credit: Provided.

Their research, “Volcanic Extrasolar Surfaces,” is published in the upcoming November 2022 issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

“We synthesized structures representing potential exoplanet surfaces combining stellar mineral data, thermodynamic modeling and laboratory experiments,” said lead author Esteban Gazel, professor of engineering in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (EAS). ) in the College of Engineering. He is also a member of the Carl Sagan Interdisciplinary Institute at Cornell (CSI).

“New observations of lava worlds by JWST unlock the mysteries of what kind of places exist on our cosmic shore,” said co-author Lisa Kaltenegger, director of CSI and associate professor of astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Our catalog of volcanic exoplanet surfaces provides a tool for deciphering the components of these worlds.”

Marc-Antoine Fortin, a former fellow in the Gazelle and Caltinager research groups, created and measured the potential physical surfaces of exoplanets, guided by previous models of what planets form around known host stars.

“As Earth and planetary scientists, we look for evidence of early planetary evolution,” Fortin said. “Here on Earth, we have some natural traces – very old rocks – that give us an idea of ​​our planet billions of years ago.

“These lava worlds are like a time machine, because the Earth was once lava, too,” Fortin said. “But with exoplanets, at least for those planets full of magma, we can see planets in different stages of their evolution.”

The lava worlds provide strong evidence for the formation of exoplanets, Fortin said. He said, “We’re looking at exoplanets in other cosmic neighborhoods, and learning all we can about these distant planets that, at least in our lifetime, we won’t be able to visit.”

With the successful launch of the Webb Telescope and fruitful early retrieval of data and images, science has an opportunity to explore exoplanets in greater detail than ever before, Gazelle said. “Our early catalog became an important tool for understanding the chemical composition of volcanic exoplanets that are not better described by solar system isotopes,” he said.

Collaborating with Fortin, Gazel and Kaltenegger on the research, Megan Holycross, associate professor at EAS.

To compile the catalog, Fortin and Gazel chose the possible rocky planet combinations, which are mantles that represent planets that could form around different stars. Then, using thermodynamic modeling, they calculated the surface compositions at different melting points.

In collaboration with Holycross, the group created artificial lava in laboratory furnaces matching these formulations, then cooled it to replicate the potential surfaces of exoplanets.

Next, Fortin measured the potential infrared reflection spectrum using the new spectroscopy equipment in the Gazel laboratory. He has linked its chemical composition to a strong spectral property – known as Christiansen’s feature, a peak found at approximately 8 micrometers – which correlates with the content of silica and other key chemical components.

According to Fortin, there is a bigger picture: “We are trying to understand not only the outer planets, but all the rocky planets – including our own.”

The Heising-Simons Foundation supported this research.

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