Nondetection of helium in the upper atmospheres of three sub-Neptune exoplanets.
KASPER D., BEAN J.L., OKLOPCIC A., MALSKY I., KEMPTON E.M.-R., DESERT J.-M., ROGERS L.A. and MANSFIELD M.
Abstract (from CDS):
We present a search for helium in the upper atmospheres of three sub-Neptune-sized planets to investigate the origins of these ubiquitous objects. The detection of helium for a low-density planet would be strong evidence for the presence of a primary atmosphere accreted from the protoplanetary nebula because large amounts of helium are not expected in the secondary atmospheres of rocky planets. We used Keck+NIRSPEC to obtain high-resolution transit spectroscopy of the planets GJ 1214b, GJ 9827d, and HD 97658b around the 10833 Å He triplet feature. We did not detect helium absorption for any of the planets despite achieving a high level of sensitivity. We used the nondetections to set limits on the planets' thermosphere temperatures and atmospheric loss rates by comparing grids of 1D models to the data. We also performed coupled interior structure and atmospheric loss calculations, which suggest that the bulk atmospheres (winds) of the planets would be at most modestly enhanced (depleted) in helium relative to their primordial composition. Our lack of detections of the helium triplet for GJ 1214b and GJ 9827d is highly inconsistent with the predictions of models for the present-day mass loss on these planets. Higher signal-to-noise data would be needed to detect the helium feature predicted for HD 97658b. We identify uncertainties in the extreme-ultraviolet fluxes of the host stars and the lack of detailed mass-loss models specifically for cool and metal-enhanced atmospheres as the main limitations to the interpretation of our results. Ultimately, our results suggest that the upper atmospheres of sub-Neptune planets are fundamentally different from those of gas giant planets.