Characteristics of quasi-static potential structures observed in the auroral return current region by Cluster
- 1Division of Plasma Physics, Alfvén Laboratory, Royal Institute of Technology, SE 10044 Stockholm, Sweden
- 2Swedish Institute of Space Physics, Box 534, SE 75121 Uppsala, Sweden
- 3University of New Hampshire, Space Sciences Centre, Durham, NH 03824, USA
- 4Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, Holmbury St. Mary, Dorking, Surrey RH5 6NT, United Kingdom
Abstract. Temporal and spatial characteristics of intense quasi-static electric fields and associated electric potential structures in the return current region are discussed using Cluster observations at geocentric distances of about 5 Earth radii. Results are presented from four Cluster encounters with such acceleration structures to illustrate common as well as different features of such structures. The electric field structures are characterized by (all values are projected to 100 km altitude) peak amplitudes of ≈1V/m, bipolar or unipolar profiles, perpendicular scale sizes of ≈10km, occurrence at auroral plasma boundaries associated with plasma density gradients, downward field-aligned currents of ≈10µA/m2, and upward electron beams with characteristic energies of a few hundred eV to a fewkeV. Two events illustrate the temporal evolution of bipolar, diverging electric field structures, indicative of positive U-shaped potentials increasing in magnitude from less than 1kV to a few kV on a few 100s time scale. This is also the typical formation time for ionospheric plasma cavities, which are connected to the potential structure and suggested to evolve hand-in-hand with these. In one of these events an energy decay of inverted-V ions was observed in the upward field-aligned current region prior to the acceleration potential increase in the adjacent downward current region, possibly suggesting that a potential redistribution took place between the two current branches. The other two events were characterized by intense unipolar electric fields, indicative of S-shaped potential contours and were encountered at the polar cap boundary. The total observation time for these events was typically 10-20s, too short for monitoring the evolution of the structure, but yet of interest for revealing their short term stability. The locations of the two bipolar events at the poleward boundary of the central plasma sheet and of the two unipolar events at the polar cap boundary, suggest that the special profile shape depends on whether plasma populations, dense enough to support upward field-aligned currents and closure of the return current, exist on both sides, or on one side only, of the boundary.