Planets with 2 R ⊕ < R < 3 R ⊕ and orbital period <100 days are abundant; these sub-Neptune exoplanets are not well understood. For example, Kepler sub-Neptunes are likely to have deep magma oceans in contact with their atmospheres, but little is known about the effect of the magma on the atmosphere. Here we study this effect using a basic model, assuming that volatiles equilibrate with magma at T ∼ 3000 K. For our Fe-Mg-Si-O-H model system, we find that chemical reactions between the magma and the atmosphere and dissolution of volatiles into the magma are both important. Thus, magma matters. For H, most moles go into the magma, so the mass target for both H2 accretion and H2 loss models is weightier than is usually assumed. The known span of magma oxidation states can produce sub-Neptunes that have identical radius but with total volatile masses varying by 20-fold. Thus, planet radius is a proxy for atmospheric composition but not for total volatile content. This redox diversity degeneracy can be broken by measurements of atmosphere mean molecular weight. We emphasize H2 supply by nebula gas, but also consider solid-derived H2O. We find that adding H2O to Fe probably cannot make enough H2 to explain sub-Neptune radii because >103 km thick outgassed atmospheres have high mean molecular weight. The hypothesis of magma-atmosphere equilibration links observables such as atmosphere H2O/H2 ratio to magma FeO content and planet formation processes. Our model's accuracy is limited by the lack of experiments (lab and/or numerical) that are specific to sub-Neptunes; we advocate for such experiments.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Astronomy and Astrophysics
- Space and Planetary Science