Context. The Large Interferometer For Exoplanets (LIFE) initiative is developing the science and a technology road map for an ambitious space mission featuring a space-based mid-infrared (MIR) nulling interferometer in order to detect the thermal emission of hundreds of exoplanets and characterize their atmospheres. Aims. In order to quantify the science potential of such a mission, in particular in the context of technical trade-offs, an instrument simulator is required. In addition, signal extraction algorithms are needed to verify that exoplanet properties (e.g., angular separation and spectral flux) contained in simulated exoplanet data sets can be accurately retrieved. Methods. We present LIFEsim, a software tool developed for simulating observations of exoplanetary systems with an MIR space-based nulling interferometer. It includes astrophysical noise sources (i.e., stellar leakage and thermal emission from local zodiacal and exozodiacal dust) and offers the flexibility to include instrumental noise terms in the future. Here, we provide some first quantitative limits on instrumental effects that would allow the measurements to remain in the fundamental noise limited regime. We demonstrate updated signal extraction approaches to validating signal-to-noise ratio (S/N) estimates from the simulator. Monte Carlo simulations are used to generate a mock survey of nearby terrestrial exoplanets and determine to which accuracy fundamental planet properties can be retrieved. Results. LIFEsim provides an accessible way to predict the expected S/N of future observations as a function of various key instrument and target parameters. The S/Ns of the extracted spectra are photon noise dominated, as expected from our current simulations. Signals from multi-planet systems can be reliably extracted. From single-epoch observations in our mock survey of small (R < 1.5 REarth) planets orbiting within the habitable zones of their stars, we find that typical uncertainties in the estimated effective temperature of the exoplanets are-²10%, for the exoplanet radius-²20%, and for the separation from the host star-²2%. Signal-to-noise-ratio values obtained in the signal extraction process deviate by less than 10% from purely photon-counting statistics-based S/Ns. Conclusions. LIFEsim has been sufficiently well validated so that it can be shared with a broader community interested in quantifying various exoplanet science cases that a future space-based MIR nulling interferometer could address. Reliable signal extraction algorithms exist, and our results underline the power of the MIR wavelength range for deriving fundamental exoplanet properties from single-epoch observations.
- methods: data analysis
- techniques: interferometric
- techniques: high angular resolution
- planets and satellites: detection
- planets and satellites: terrestrial planets
- planets and satellites: fundamental parameters