Peter Gao, Renyu Hu, Tyler D. Robinson, Cheng Li, Yuk L. Yung

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

82 Scopus citations


We investigate the chemical stability of CO2-dominated atmospheres of desiccated M dwarf terrestrial exoplanets using a one-dimensional photochemical model. Around Sun-like stars, CO2 photolysis by Far-UV (FUV) radiation is balanced by recombination reactions that depend on water abundance. Planets orbiting M dwarf stars experience more FUV radiation, and could be depleted in water due to M dwarfs' prolonged, high-luminosity pre-main sequences. We show that, for water-depleted M dwarf terrestrial planets, a catalytic cycle relying on H2O2 photolysis can maintain a CO2 atmosphere. However, this cycle breaks down for atmospheric hydrogen mixing ratios <1 ppm, resulting in ∼40% of the atmospheric CO2 being converted to CO and O2 on a timescale of 1 Myr. The increased O2 abundance leads to high O3 concentrations, the photolysis of which forms another CO2-regenerating catalytic cycle. For atmospheres with <0.1 ppm hydrogen, CO2 is produced directly from the recombination of CO and O. These catalytic cycles place an upper limit of ∼50% on the amount of CO2 that can be destroyed via photolysis, which is enough to generate Earth-like abundances of (abiotic) O2 and O3. The conditions that lead to such high oxygen levels could be widespread on planets in the habitable zones of M dwarfs. Discrimination between biological and abiotic O2 and O3 in this case can perhaps be accomplished by noting the lack of water features in the reflectance and emission spectra of these planets, which necessitates observations at wavelengths longer than 0.95 μm.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number249
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 20 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • planets and satellites: atmospheres
  • planets and satellites: physical evolution
  • planets and satellites: terrestrial planets

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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