Probing the capability of future direct-imaging missions to spectrally constrain the frequency of earth-like planets

Jade H. Checlair, Geronimo L. Villanueva, Benjamin P.C. Hayworth, Stephanie L. Olson, Thaddeus D. Komacek, Tyler D. Robinson, Predrag Popović, Huanzhou Yang, Dorian S. Abbot

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


A critical question in astrobiology is whether exo-Earth candidates (EECs) are Earth-like, in that they originate life that progressively oxygenates their atmospheres similarly to Earth. We propose answering this question statistically by searching for O2 and O3 on EECs with missions such as HabEx or LUVOIR. We explore the ability of these missions to constrain the fraction, fE, of EECs that are Earth-like in the event of a null detection of O2 or O3 on all observed EECs. We use the Planetary Spectrum Generator to simulate observations of EECs with O2 and O3 levels based on Earth’s history. We consider four instrument designs—LUVOIR-A (15 m), LUVOIR-B (8 m), HabEx with a starshade (4 m, “HabEx/SS”), and HabEx without a starshade (4 m, “HabEx/no-SS”)—as well as three estimates of the occurrence rate of EECs (ηearth): 24%, 5%, and 0.5%. In the case of a null detection, we find that for ηearth = 24%, LUVOIR-A, LUVOIR-B, and HabEx/SS would constrain fE to <0.094, <0.18, and <0.56, respectively. This also indicates that if fE is greater than these upper limits, we are likely to detect O3 on at least one EEC. Conversely, we find that HabEx/no-SS cannot constrain fE, due to the lack of a coronagraph ultraviolet channel. For ηearth = 5%, only LUVOIR-A and LUVOIR-B would be able to constrain fE, to <0.45 and <0.85, respectively. For ηearth = 0.5%, none of the missions would allow us to constrain fE, due to the low number of detectable EECs. We conclude that the ability to constrain fE is more robust to uncertainties in ηearth for missions with larger aperture mirrors. However, all missions are susceptible to an inconclusive null detection if ηearth is sufficiently low.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number150
JournalAstronomical Journal
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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