Sulfur Hazes in Giant Exoplanet Atmospheres: Impacts on Reflected Light Spectra

Peter Gao, Mark S. Marley, Kevin Zahnle, Tyler D. Robinson, Nikole K. Lewis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

51 Scopus citations


Recent work has shown that sulfur hazes may arise in the atmospheres of some giant exoplanets, due to the photolysis of H2S. We investigate the impact such a haze would have on an exoplanet's geometric albedo spectrum and how it may affect the direct imaging results of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), a planned NASA space telescope. For temperate (250 K < T eq < 700 K) Jupiter-mass planets, photochemical destruction of H2S results in the production of ∼1 ppmv of S8 between 100 and 0.1 mbar, which, if cool enough, will condense to form a haze. Nominal haze masses are found to drastically alter a planet's geometric albedo spectrum: whereas a clear atmosphere is dark at wavelengths between 0.5 and 1 μm, due to molecular absorption, the addition of a sulfur haze boosts the albedo there to ∼0.7, due to scattering. Strong absorption by the haze shortward of 0.4 μm results in albedos <0.1, in contrast to the high albedos produced by Rayleigh scattering in a clear atmosphere. As a result, the color of the planet shifts from blue to orange. The existence of a sulfur haze masks the molecular signatures of methane and water, thereby complicating the characterization of atmospheric composition. Detection of such a haze by WFIRST is possible, though discriminating between a sulfur haze and any other highly reflective, high-altitude scatterer will require observations shortward of 0.4 μm, which is currently beyond WFIRST's design.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number139
JournalAstronomical Journal
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • planets and satellites: atmospheres

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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