Detecting Oceans on Exoplanets with Phase-dependent Spectral Principal Component Analysis

Dominick J. Ryan, Tyler D. Robinson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Stable surface liquid water is a key indicator of exoplanet habitability. However, few approaches exist for directly detecting oceans on potentially Earth-like exoplanets. In most cases, specular reflection of host starlight from surface bodies of water—referred to as ocean glint—proves to be an important aspect of liquids that can enable detection of habitable conditions. Here, we propose that spectral principal component analysis (PCA) applied to orbital phase-dependent observations of Earth-like exoplanets can provide a straightforward means of detecting ocean glint and thus habitability. Using high-fidelity, orbit-resolved spectral models of Earth, and for instrument capabilities applicable to proposed exo-Earth direct imaging concept missions, the extreme reddening effect of crescent-phase ocean glint is demonstrated as the primary spectral component that explains phase-dependent variability for orbital inclinations spanning 60°–90°. At smaller orbital inclinations where more-extreme crescent phases cannot be accessed, glint can still significantly increase planetary brightness but reddening effects are less pronounced, and as a result, glint is not plainly indicated by phase-dependent spectral PCA. Using instrument models for future exoplanet direct imaging mission concepts, we show that brightness enhancements due to glint could be detected across a wide range of orbital inclinations with typical exposure times measured in hours to weeks, depending on system distance and mission architecture. Thus, brightness increases due to glint are potentially detectable for Earth-like exoplanets for most system inclinations, and phase-dependent spectral PCA could indicate reddening due to glint for a subset of these inclinations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number33
JournalPlanetary Science Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Geophysics
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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