Orbital Dynamics and Habitability of Exoplanets
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With the discoveries of thousands of extra-solar planets, a handful of which are terrestrial in size and located within the ``habitable zone'' of their host stars, the discovery of another instance of life in the universe seems increasingly within our grasp. Yet, a number of difficulties remain---with current and developing technologies, the full characterization of a terrestrial atmosphere and, hence, the detection of biosignatures will be extraordinarily difficult and expensive. Furthermore, observations will be ambiguous, as recent developments have shown that there is no ``smoking gun'' for the presence of life. Ultimately, the interpretation of observations will depend heavily upon our understanding of life's fundamental properties and the physical context of a planet's observed properties. This thesis is devoted to a development of the latter quantity, physical context, focusing on a topic oft-neglected in theoretical works of habitability: orbital dynamics. I show a number of ways in which orbital dynamics can affect the habitability of exoplanets. This work highlights the crucial role of stability, mutual inclinations, and resonances, demonstrating how these properties influence atmospheric states. Studies of exoplanetary systems tend to assume that the planets are coplanar, however, the large mutual inclination of the planets orbiting upsilon Andromedae suggests that coplanarity is not always a valid assumption. In my study of this system, I show that the large inclination between planets c and d and their large eccentricities lead to dramatic orbital variations. Though there is almost certainly no habitable planet orbiting upsilon And, the existence of this system demonstrates that we should expect other such dynamically ``hot'' planetary systems, some of which may contain potentially habitable planets. Minute variations in a planet's orbit can lead to changes in the global temperature, and indeed, these variations seem to be intimately connected to Earth's Pleistocene ice ages. Mutual inclinations lead not only to larger variations in a planet's obliquity, but also uncover secular spin-orbit resonances, which lead to yet more dramatic behavior. I modeled the obliquity evolution of planets in this highly non-linear dynamical regime. Connecting the dynamical models to an simple climate model with ice sheets, I modeled the effects of such dynamical evolution on an Earth-like planet's climate. As expected, such ``exo-Milankovitch cycles'' can be rapid and dramatic, often leading to complete collapse into a snowball state. By demonstrating a handful of the many ways dynamics can influence habitability, this research provides context to observations of exoplanets and connects to one of the key goals of astrobiology, to ``Determine the potential for habitable planets beyond the Solar System, and characterize those that are observable'' (Des Marais et al., 2008). It provides tools and techniques that may be used to help prioritize exoplanet targets for characterization missions when very little information is known other than orbital properties. It also demonstrates how orbital evolution affects observable quantities like albedo, and will assist in the interpretation of spectra.
- Astronomy