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Friday 31 Oct 2014Archaeology of Exo-Terrestrial Planetary Systems

Dr. Jay Farihi - University College London

Newman Red 12:00-13:00

We now stand firmly in the era of solid exoplanet detection via Kepler and other state of the art facilities. Yet the empirical characterization of these most intriguing planets is extremely challenging. Transit plus radial velocity information can yield planet mass and radius, and hence planet density, but the bulk composition remains degenerate and completely model-ependent. Currently, the abundances of a handful of exoplanet atmospheres can be estimated from transit spectroscopy, or observed directly via spectroscopy, but probing only the tenuous outer layers of those planets.

Fortunately, as demonstrated by Spitzer, and complementary ground-based observations, debris disk-polluted white dwarfs can yield highly accurate information on the chemical structure of rocky minor planets (i.e. exo-asteroids), the building blocks of solid exoplanets. The white dwarf distills the planetary fragments, and provides powerful insight into the mass and chemical structure of the parent body.

This archaeological method provides empirical data on the assembly and chemistry of exo-terrestrial planets that is unavailable for any planetary system orbiting a main-sequence star. In the Solar System, the asteroids (or minor planets) are leftover building blocks of the terrestrial planets, and we obtain their compositions -- and hence that of the terrestrial planets -- by studying meteorites. Similarly, one can infer the composition of exo-terrestrial planets by studying tidally destroyed and accreted asteroids at polluted white dwarfs.

I will present ongoing, state of the art results using this unconventional technique, including the recent detection of terrestrial-like debris in the Hyades star cluster, as well as the detection of water-rich planetesimals that may represent the building blocks of habitable exoplanets.

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