Constraining Background N2 Inventories on Directly Imaged Terrestrial Exoplanets to Rule Out O2 False Positives

Sawyer Hall, Joshua Krissansen-Totton, Tyler Robinson, Arnaud Salvador, Jonathan J. Fortney

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Direct imaging spectroscopy with future space-based telescopes will constrain terrestrial planet atmospheric composition and potentially detect biosignature gases. One promising indication of life is abundant atmospheric O2. However, various non-biological processes could also lead to O2 accumulation in the atmospheres of potentially habitable planets around Sun-like stars. In particular, the absence of non-condensible background gases such as N2 could result in appreciable H escape and abiotic O2 buildup, so identifying background atmosphere composition is crucial for contextualizing any O2 detections. Here, we perform retrievals on simulated directly imaged terrestrial planets using rfast, a new exoplanet atmospheric retrieval suite with direct imaging analysis capabilities. By simulating Earth-analog retrievals for varied atmospheric compositions, cloud properties, and surface pressures, we determine what wavelength range, spectral resolution, and signal-to-noise ratio (S/N) are necessary to constrain background gases’ identity and abundance. We find N2 backgrounds can be uniquely identified with S/N ∼ 20 observations, provided that wavelength coverage extends beyond ∼1.6 μm to rule out CO-dominated atmospheres. Additionally, there is a low probability of O2-dominated atmospheres due to an O2-N2 degeneracy that is only totally ruled out at S/N ∼ 40. If wavelength coverage is limited to 0.2-1.1 μm, then although all other cosmochemically plausible backgrounds can be readily excluded, N2 and CO backgrounds cannot be distinguished. Overall, our simulated retrievals and associated integration time calculations suggest that near-infrared coverage to at least 1.6 μm and apertures approaching 8 m are needed to confidently rule out O2 biosignature false positives within feasible integration times.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number254
JournalAstronomical Journal
Issue number254
StatePublished - Dec 1 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Constraining Background N2 Inventories on Directly Imaged Terrestrial Exoplanets to Rule Out O2 False Positives'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this