Plasma precipitation on Mercury’s nightside and its implications for magnetospheric convection and exosphere generation.
Abstract:Plasma impact onto Mercury’s surface can be an important contributor to Mercury’s exosphere through the process of ion sputtering. Under some circumstances, this process can produce a substantial fraction of the exosphere. When the impacting plasma originates from the magnetosphere itself, this sputtering process can conversely be considered as a sink for the plasma of the Mercury magnetosphere, providing evidence for the processes at work in that system. One such process is reconnection in Mercury's magnetotail, which can accelerate ions and electrons from the central plasma sheet toward the nightside of the planet. By analogy with processes at Earth, it is hypothesized that as these flows approach the planet, much of the plasma is diverted from impact onto the surface by the increasingly strong planetary magnetic field closer to the planet. The remainder of the plasma is expected to follow nearly dipolar field lines, impacting the nightside surface and potentially contributing to field-aligned currents.
We present the first direct evidence that this process is operating at Mercury. We examine ion precipitation events on Mercury’s nightside with the Fast Imaging Plasma Spectrometer (FIPS) on the MESSENGER spacecraft, which orbited Mercury from 2011 to 2015. We characterize the energy distributions of these events and their extent in latitude and local time. We use these observations to predict the precipitating proton flux from altitudes as low as 11 km. We use this information to bound the region of Mercury’s surface that remains protected from plasma bombardment by the planetary dipole magnetic field, and to explore the implications of this information for magnetospheric convection and exosphere generation at Mercury.