Status Report

Rainbows, Polarization, and the Search for Habitable Planets

By SpaceRef Editor
May 15, 2007
Filed under , , ,

Rainbows, Polarization, and the Search for Habitable Planets

April 2007, Vol. 7, No. 2 : 320 -332

Current proposals for the characterization of extrasolar terrestrial planets rest primarily on the use of spectroscopic techniques. While spectroscopy is effective in detecting the gaseous components of a planet’s atmosphere, it provides no way of detecting the presence of liquid water, the defining characteristic of a habitable planet. In this paper, I investigate the potential of an alternative technique for characterizing the atmosphere of a planet using polarization. By looking for a polarization peak at the “primary rainbow” scattering angle, it is possible to detect the presence of liquid droplets in a planet’s atmosphere and constrain the nature of the liquid through its refractive index. Single scattering calculations are presented to show that a well-defined rainbow scattering peak is present over the full range of likely cloud droplet sizes and clearly distinguishes the presence of liquid droplets from solid particles such as ice or dust. Rainbow scattering has been used in the past to determine the nature of the cloud droplets in the Venus atmosphere and by the POLarization and Directionality of Earth Reflectances (POLDER) instrument to distinguish between liquid and ice clouds in the Earth atmosphere. While the presence of liquid water clouds does not guarantee the presence of water at the surface, this technique could complement spectroscopic techniques for characterizing the atmospheres of potential habitable planets. The disk-integrated rainbow peak for Earth is estimated to be at a degree of polarization of 12.7% or 15.5% for two different cloud cover scenarios. The observation of this rainbow peak is shown to be feasible with the proposed Terrestrial Planet Finder Coronograph mission in similar total integration times to those required for spectroscopic characterization.

SpaceRef staff editor.