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You are here: Home / Submitted Papers / 2015 / Features in the broad-band eclipse spectra of exoplanets: signal or noise?

Features in the broad-band eclipse spectra of exoplanets: signal or noise?


A planet's emission spectrum contains information about atmospheric composition and structure. We compare the Bayesian Information Criterion (BIC) of blackbody fits and idealized spectral retrieval fits for the 44 planets with published eclipse measurements in multiple thermal wavebands, mostly obtained with the Spitzer Space Telescope. The evidence for spectral features depends on eclipse depth uncertainties. Spitzer has proven capable of eclipse precisions better than 10-4 when multiple eclipses are analysed simultaneously, but this feat has only been performed four times. It is harder to self-calibrate photometry when a single occultation is reduced and analysed in isolation; we find that such measurements have not passed the test of repeatability. Single-eclipse measurements either have an uncertainty floor of 5 × 10-4, or their uncertainties have been underestimated by a factor of 3. If one adopts these empirical uncertainties for single-eclipse measurements, then the evidence for molecular features all but disappears: blackbodies have better BIC than spectral retrieval for all planets, save HD 189733b, and the few planets poorly fit by blackbodies are also poorly fit by self-consistent radiative transfer models. This suggests that the features in extant broad-band emission spectra are due to astrophysical and instrumental noise rather than molecular bands. Claims of stratospheric inversions, disequilibrium chemistry, and high C/O ratios based solely on photometry are premature. We recommend that observers be cautious of error estimates from self-calibration of small data sets, and that modellers compare the evidence for spectral models to that of simpler models such as blackbodies.


Hansen, Christopher J.; Schwartz, Joel C.; Cowan, Nicolas B.


Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

Paper Publication Date

November 2014

Paper Type


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