Reading about the mysteries of space as a child set Akash Gupta on a path to solve the vast unknowns of the universe. As a theorist, he aims to explain the different physical and chemical processes that dictate how Earth-like exoplanets form and evolve and, ultimately, how such processes lead to habitable conditions. His work examines the curious gap in the size distribution of exoplanets between small, gaseous sub-Neptunes and rocky super-Earths, and predicting how the former may transform into the latter. Akash has demonstrated that the typical exoplanet is born with a puffy, hydrogen-rich atmosphere and that the thermal energy it stores during its growth, along with energy from its parent star, can cause the planet to lose this atmosphere, leading to the formation of rocky, Earth-like exoplanets.

In his fellowship, Akash will expand the scope of his work with respect to these planet types. He will examine how the loss of a hydrogen-rich atmosphere, in concurrence with other processes, transforms a planet’s atmospheric composition. He will also use state-of-the-art computational techniques and tools, such as quantum mechanical simulations and machine learning, to investigate how planetary building blocks interact over a broad range of atmospheric conditions. Akash’s findings will improve understanding of exoplanet demographics and the measurements of their compositions, laying the foundation for studying more complex questions. Akash received a Ph.D. in planetary science from the University of California, Los Angeles, in Spring 2023.

“The timescale of losing a primordial hydrogen atmosphere and becoming an Earth-like rocky planet is on the order of a billion years. This process, thus, has a lot of implications for how habitable, Earth-like conditions could form. We want to know what happens before we get to the end state.”