On the formation of sharp gradients in electron density resulting from an ice-plasma feedback instabilities in the polar summer mesosphere

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Jonathan Yee, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, United States and Hasan Bahcivan, SRI International Menlo Park, Center for Geospace Studies, Menlo Park, CA, United States
Polar Mesospheric Summer Echoes (PMSEs) have commonly been attributed to scattering from (1) volume-filled electron density turbulence and (2) extremely sharp (meter-scale) gradients in electron density. In-situ sounding rockets have measured both extended regions of turbulence as well as electron density ledges. Unlike the turbulence theory, which has been extensively studied, a theory on the formation of sharp edges has yet to be explored. In this study, we reconsider the study of Gumbel et al. [2002] on the influences of ice particles on the ion chemistry and propose a theory of ice-plasma feedback instability in order to explain the origin of sharp electron density gradients. A one-dimensional particle-in-cell simulation of a multi-constituent weakly-ionized plasma has been developed to capture the physics of proton-hydrates (H+[H20]n), ice, and plasma interactions on a spatial grid of approximately 25 m. The simulation captures (1) the development of the proton-hydrate chain starting at n=4 via Thomson’s model and Natanson’s recombination scheme, (2) the formation of ice nucleation on large cluster proton-hydrates (n > 73), (3) the attachment of electrons (and ions) to ice particles, and resulting depletion of the plasma density, which significantly accelerates the proton-hydrate chain and ionic nucleation of new ice particles, (4) and the development of an ice-plasma feedback instability whereby the repeated process of developing new ice particles leads to capture of even more electrons and further depletion of existing regions of lower plasma density. Since this feedback instability process is faster than typical aerosol diffusion rates in this region, existing gradients steepen to produce electron density ledges. Although ionic nucleation is not feasible as the major mesospheric nucleation process, it can become efficient locally, near the coldest parts of the mesosphere because the proton-hydrate chain development is extremely sensitive to ambient temperature. As a result, the mesospheric temperature gradients may be responsible for vertically localized and horizontally extended meter-scale electron density ledges as has been detected by numerous in-situ sounding rockets and inferred from radar specular echoes.