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Planetary Atmospheres & Interiors


Earth’s atmosphere is essential for allowing water to persist on Earth’s surface.  Our own solar system shows that the atmospheres of rocky planets can differ wildly, from the hot, dense greenhouse of Venus to the thin atmosphere of Mars which was not able to retain the water on early Mars.  Therefore, understanding the surface properties of extrasolar planets requires characterizing their atmospheres.

Similarly, the planets and small bodies in our solar system have a wide range of compositions and interior structures.   Astronomical observations must be combined with theoretical modeling to address questions such as the potential for active plate tectonics that play an important role in regulating Earth’s climate.  Characterizing the bulk composition and structure of extrasolar planets is complicated by the potential for rocky cores to have substantial gaseous envelopes.  Therefore, characterizing the interiors and atmospheres of exoplanets are intertwined.

Areas of Specialty

  • Global climate models of terreistrial planets (Kasting)
  • Characterization of the atmospheres of cold brown dwarfs (Luhman)
  • Relationship between planet formation and atmospheres of terrestrial planets (Sigurdsson, Dawson)
  • Characterizing atmospheres of giant exoplanets (Wright)

Faculty Contacts

  • Rebekah Dawson studies how conditions during the giant impact stage of planet formation affects the atmospheres accreted by super-Earths.
  • James Kasting and his students use climate and photochemical models to study planetary atmospheres within and outside of our own Solar System. See further details under “Life Beyond Earth and Astrobiology”.
  • Kevin Luhman searches for cold brown dwarfs in the solar neighborhood and uses them as laboratories for testing planetary atmospheres.
  • Steinn Sigurdsson investigates the implications of planet formation theory for the composition and volatile content of potentially habitable planets.
  • Jason Wright‘s group members conduct high precision photometric measurements in the optical and near-infrared to measure the temperatures and compositions of the atmospheres of giant planets that transit other stars.


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