Dynamics, mineralogy and structure of exoplanets
Gauging likelihood of planetary systems to host long-term, sustained plate tectonics
The presence of plate tectonics on Earth is a primary factor in its habitability, regulating atmospheric carbon as well as creating a planetary-scale water cycle. While the exact mechanism for initiating plate tectonics is unknown, determining the likelihood of a planet sustaining tectonics provides a first-order constraint on it being habitable over geologic timescales. One driver for sustaining plate tectonics on Earth is the slab-pull produced as the basalt present in the subducting plate undergoes a phase transition to the denser eclogite phase. The plate, now more dense than the surrounding mantle, continues to sink rather than stagnating in the upper mantle. For the more generalized exoplanet case, the magnitude of this chemical buoyancy force is dependent on the mineralogy of the melt- extracted, subducting crust. Currently, I am utilizing the MELTS and HeFESTo software packages to calculate the melt chemistry, mineralogy and relative buoyancy force of potential subducting plates over a compositional range indicative of ~1000 Sun-like stars. By comparing the magnitude of the negative buoyancy force across this compositional space, we can gauge the liklihood of those stellar systems producing planets able to undergo long-term plate tectonics and provide a measure of its potential habitability.
Defining "Earth-like" Planets
An exoplanet’s structure and composition are first-order controls of the planet’s habitability. In my work, I explore which aspects of bulk terrestrial planet composition and interior structure affect the chief observables of an exoplanet: its mass and radius. Applying perturbations to the planet we know best, the Earth, my work finds that core radius, presence of light elements in the core and an upper-mantle consisting of low-pressure silicates have the largest effect on the final calculated mass at a given radius, none of which are included in current mass-radius models. I expanded these results to produce a self-consistent grid of compositionally as well as structurally constrained terrestrial mass-radius models for quantifying the likelihood of exoplanets being “Earth-like.”
The distribution of radiogenic heat budgets in the Galaxy
The abundances of the radioactive elements Th, U and 40K are key components of a planet’s energy budget, making up 30%–50% of the Earth’s. As refractory elements, stellar Th and U abundances should be mirrored between host-star and exoplanet, thus providing an estimate of the exoplanet’s radiogenic heat budget. Through spectroscopic observations of Solar twins and analogues, I measured variation in Th between ~60 and 250% of the Solar/Earth abundance. Utilizing a parameterized convection model, I found that the first- order this variation can significantly affects the convective state and thermal history of a planet.
Mineralogy and dynamics of carbon planets
The viscoelastic structure of a planet’s mantle and subsequent dynamic state is a function of its relative temperature, composition and mineralogy of the convecting fluid. My previous work showed that terrestrial planets containing significant fractions of C relative to Mg, Si, Fe and O would stabilize diamond rather than carbonates as the dominant form of mantle carbon. Using parameterized convection models, we found that an increase in C, and thus diamond, concentration slows or stops mantle convection relative to a silicate-dominated planet, due to diamond’s ∼3 order of magnitude increase in both viscosity and thermal conductivity. These planets will then have drastically different thermal histories than the Earth, and likely lack tectonics as well as deep carbon and water cycles, making them inhabitable to life as we know it.
Petrology and mineralogy of non-Earth compositions
Our current suite of thermodynamics software and databases used for determining bulk mineralogy and melt chemistry were designed to address phase equilibria for compositions at or near the Earth values. Thus, these models often fail when calculating phase equilibria for non-Earth compositions due to a lack of data. Working with Drs. Christy Till of Arizona State University (ASU) and Mark Ghiorso of OFM Research, I am quantifying which major-element compositions are not represented in the MELTS software package. These compositions will then be used as starting compositions for phase equilibria experiments in ASU’s EPIC lab to expand the underlying MELTS database. I am similarly working with Dr. Dan Shim of ASU to develop diamond anvil cell experiments for determining the phase equilibria of mantles with compositions of Mg/Si < 1. I am concurrently calculating the predicted phase equilibria using PerPlex for these compositions for comparison with this experimental data.