Detecting oceans on extrasolar planets using the glint effect

Tyler D. Robinson, Victoria S. Meadows, David Crisp

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

100 Scopus citations


Glint, the specular reflection of sunlight off Earth's oceans,may reveal the presence of oceans on an extrasolar planet. As an Earth-like planet nears crescent phases, the size of the ocean glint spot increases relative to the fraction of the illuminated disk, while the reflectivity of this spot increases. Both effects change the planet's visible reflectivity as a function of phase. However, strong forward scattering of radiation by clouds can also produce increases in a planet's reflectivity as it approaches crescent phases, and surface glint can be obscured by Rayleigh scattering and atmospheric absorption. Here, we explore the detectability of glint in the presence of an atmosphere and realistic phase-dependent scattering from oceans and clouds. We use the NASA Astrobiology Institute's Virtual Planetary Laboratory three-dimensional line-by-line, multiple-scattering spectral Earth model to simulate Earth's broadband visible brightness and reflectivity over an orbit. Our validated simulations successfully reproduce phase-dependent Earthshine observations. We find that the glinting Earth can be as much as 100% brighter at crescent phases than simulations that do not include glint, and that the effect is dependent on both orbital inclination and wavelength, where the latter dependence is caused by Rayleigh scattering limiting sensitivity to the surface. We show that this phenomenon may be observable using the James Webb Space Telescope paired with an external occulter.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)L67-L71
JournalAstrophysical Journal Letters
Issue number1 PART 2
StatePublished - Sep 20 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Astrobiology
  • Earth
  • Planets and satellites: composition
  • Radiative transfer
  • Scattering
  • Techniques: photometric

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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