Dust Particle Alignment in the Solar Magnetic Field: a Possible Cause of the Cometary Circular Polarization
Abstract:Circular polarization (CP) produced by scattering of sunlight on cometary dust has been observed in 11 comets, and showed the values from 0.01% to 0.8%. CP of both signs was observed, although negative (left-handed) CP dominates. Recent observations of several comets using SCORPIO-2 focal reducer at the 6-m BTA telescope of the Special Astrophysical Observatory (Russia) allowed producing maps of CP in the comet continuum filter at 684 nm and red wide-band filter. A gradual increase of the CP with the nucleocentric distance was usually observed.
The most plausible reason why the light scattered by cometary dust becomes circularly polarized is alignment of the dust particles in the solar magnetic field. However, in-situ data for comet Halley, indicated that the solar magnetic field could not penetrate deep into the coma, limited by the diamagnetic cavity, and, thus, could not be responsible for the CP observed closer than ~4000 km from the nucleus. Advanced theoretical studies of interaction of the solar magnetic field with cometary ions led to reconsidering the diamagnetic cavity boundary - it is defined by the cometary ionopause, at which a balance is achieved between the magnetic pressure in the magnetic pile up region and the neutral friction force. The nucleocentric distance where this balance is achieved depends on the comet characteristics, increasing with the increase of the gas production rate, and local solar wind conditions, approximatively given by the comet location, specifically, its heliocentric distance. The size of diamagnetic cavity was calculated for the conditions of our CP observations. We found that it could be as small as dozens (comets 73P, 8P, 290P) or hundreds (comets Q4 NEAT, K1 PanSTARRS, Tago-Sato-Kosaka) kilometers. Thus, non-zero CP close to the nucleus can be easily explained by the interaction of the dust particles with the solar magnetic field. This mechanism also explains the observed increase in CP with the distance from the nucleus.