Researchers have long been curious about how atmospheres on rocky exoplanets might evolve. The evolution of our own atmosphere is one model: Earth’s primordial atmosphere was rich in hydrogen and helium, but our planet’s gravitational grip was too weak to prevent these lightest of elements from escaping into space. Researchers want to know whether the atmospheres on Earth-like exoplanets experience a similar evolution.
By analyzing spectroscopic data taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, Mark Swain and his team were able to describe one scenario for atmospheric evolution on Gliese 1132 b (GJ 1132 b), a rocky exoplanet similar in size and density to Earth. In a new study published in the Astronomical Journal, Swain and his colleagues suggest that GJ 1132 b has restored its hydrogen-rich atmosphere after having lost it early in the exoplanet’s history.
“Small terrestrial planets, where we might find life outside of our solar system, are profoundly impacted by atmosphere loss,” said Swain, a research scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “We have no idea how common atmospheric restoration is, but it is going to be important in the long-term study of potential habitable worlds.”