Circular polarization signals of cloudy (exo)planets

Loic Rossi, Daphne Stam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)
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The circular polarization of light that planets reflect is often neglected because it is very small compared to the linear polarization. It could, however, provide information on a planet’s atmosphere and surface, and on the presence of life, because homochiral molecules that are the building blocks of life on Earth are known to reflect circularly polarized light.

Aims. We compute Pc, the degree of circular polarization, of light that is reflected by rocky (exo)planets to provide insight into the viability of circular spectropolarimetry for characterizing (exo)planetary atmospheres.

Methods. We compute the Pc of light that is reflected by rocky (exo)planets with liquid water or sulfuric acid solution clouds, both spatially resolved across the planetary disk and, for planets with patchy clouds, integrated across the planetary disk, for various planetary phase angles α.

Results. The optical thickness and vertical distribution of the atmospheric gas and clouds, the size parameter and refractive index of the cloud particles, and α all influence Pc. Spatially resolved, Pc varies between ± 0.20% (the sign indicates the polarization direction). Only for small gas optical thicknesses above the clouds do significant sign changes (related to cloud particle properties) across the planets’ hemispheres occur. For patchy clouds, the disk-integrated Pc is typically smaller than ± 0.025%, with maximum for α between 40° and 70°, and 120° to 140°. As expected, the disk-integrated Pc is virtually zero at α = 0° and 180°. The disk-integrated Pc is also very small at α ≈ 100°.

Conclusions. Measuring circular polarization signals appears to be challenging with current technology. The small atmospheric circular polarization signal could, however, allow the detection of circular polarization due to homochiral molecules such as those associated with life on Earth. Confirmation of the detectability of such signals requires better knowledge of the strength of circular polarization signals of biological sources and in particular of the angular distribution of their scattering.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberA117
Number of pages14
JournalAstronomy & Astrophysics
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2018


  • polarization
  • techniques: polarimetric
  • radiative transfer
  • Planets and satellites: atmospheres

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