Spherical Harmonics for the 1D Radiative Transfer Equation. I. Reflected Light

Caoimhe M. Rooney, Natasha E. Batalha, Mark S. Marley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A significant challenge in radiative transfer theory for atmospheres of exoplanets and brown dwarfs is the derivation of computationally efficient methods that have adequate fidelity to more precise, numerically demanding solutions. In this work, we extend the capability of the first open-source radiative transfer model for computing the reflected light of exoplanets at any phase geometry, PICASO (Planetary Intensity Code for Atmospheric Spectroscopy Observations). Until now, PICASO has implemented two-stream approaches to the solving the radiative transfer equation for reflected light, in particular following the derivations of Toon et al. In order to improve the model accuracy, we have considered higher-order approximations of the phase functions; namely, we have increased the order of approximation from two to four, using spherical harmonics. The spherical harmonics approximation decouples spatial and directional dependencies by expanding the intensity and phase function into a series of spherical harmonics, or Legendre polynomials, allowing for analytical solutions for low-order approximations to optimize computational efficiency. We rigorously derive the spherical harmonics method for reflected light and benchmark the four-term method (SH4) against Toon et al. and two independent and higher-fidelity methods (CDISORT and doubling method). On average, the SH4 method provides an order-of-magnitude increase in accuracy, compared to Toon et al. Finally, we implement SH4 within PICASO and observe only a modest increase in computational time, compared to two-stream methods (20% increase).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number22
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jun 1 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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