Nulling interferometry: impact of exozodiacal clouds on the performance of future life-finding space missions*
Institut d'Astrophysique et de Géophysique, Université de Liège, 17 Allée du Six Août, 4000 Liège, Belgium e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
2 Netherlands Institute for Space Research, SRON, Sorbonnelaan 2, 3584 CA, Utrecht, The Netherlands
3 Department of Physics, University of Maryland, Box 197, 082 Regents Drive, College Park, MD 20742-4111, USA
Accepted: 5 October 2009
Context. Earth-sized planets around nearby stars are being detected for the first time by ground-based radial velocity and space-based transit surveys. This milestone is opening the path toward the definition of instruments able to directly detect the light from these planets, with the identification of bio-signatures as one of the main objectives. In that respect, both the European Space Agency (ESA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have identified nulling interferometry as one of the most promising techniques. The ability to study distant planets will however depend on the amount of exozodiacal dust in the habitable zone of the target stars.
Aims. We assess the impact of exozodiacal clouds on the performance of an infrared nulling interferometer in the Emma X-array configuration. The first part of the study is dedicated to the effect of the disc brightness on the number of targets that can be surveyed and studied by spectroscopy during the mission lifetime. In the second part, we address the impact of asymmetric structures in the discs such as clumps and offset which can potentially mimic the planetary signal.
Methods. We use the DarwinSIM software which was designed and validated to study the performance of space-based nulling interferometers. The software has been adapted to handle images of exozodiacal discs and to compute the corresponding demodulated signal.
Results. For the nominal mission architecture with 2-m aperture telescopes, centrally symmetric exozodiacal dust discs about 100 times denser than the solar zodiacal cloud can be tolerated in order to survey at least 150 targets during the mission lifetime. Considering modeled resonant structures created by an Earth-like planet orbiting at 1 AU around a Sun-like star, we show that this tolerable dust density goes down to about 15 times the solar zodiacal density for face-on systems and decreases with the disc inclination.
Conclusions. Whereas the disc brightness only affects the integration time, the presence of clumps or offset is more problematic and can hamper the planet detection. Based on the worst-case scenario for debris disc structures, the upper limit on the tolerable exozodiacal dust density is approximately 15 times the density of the solar zodiacal cloud. This gives the typical sensitivity that we will need to reach on exozodiacal discs in order to prepare the scientific programme of future Earth-like planet characterisation missions.
Key words: instrumentation: high angular resolution / techniques: interferometric / circumstellar matter / interplanetary medium / planetary systems / planetary systems: protoplanetary disks
© ESO, 2010