Radial distribution of plasma at comet 67P - Implications for cometary flyby missions
De Keyser, J.
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Context. The Rosetta spacecraft followed comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P) for more than two years at a slow walking pace (~1 m s−1) within 1500 km from the nucleus. During one of the radial movements of the spacecraft in the early phase of the mission, the radial distribution of the plasma density could be estimated, and the ionospheric density was found to be inversely proportional to the cometocentric distance r from the nucleus (a 1/r distribution). Aims. This study aims to further characterise the radial distribution of plasma around 67P throughout the mission and to expand on the initial results. We also aim to investigate how a 1/r distribution would be observed during aflyby with a fast (~10’s km s−1) spacecraft, such as the upcoming Comet Interceptor mission, when there is also an asymmetry introduced to the outgassing over the comet surface. Methods. To determine the radial distribution of the plasma, we used data from the Langmuir probe and Mutual Impedance instruments from the Rosetta Plasma Consortium during six intervals throughout the mission, for which the motion of Rosetta was approximately radial with respect to the comet. We then simulated what distribution a fast flyby mission would actually observe during its passage through a coma when there is a 1/r plasma density distribution as well as a sinusoidal variation with a phase angle (and then a sawtooth variation) multiplied to the outgassing rate. Results. The plasma density around comet 67P is found to roughly follow a 1/r dependence, although significant deviations occur in some intervals. If we normalise all data to a common outgassing rate (or heliocentric distance) and combine the intervals to a radial range of 10–1500 km, we find a 1/r1.19 average distribution. The simulated observed density from a fast spacecraft flying through a coma with a 1/r distribution and an asymmetric outgassing can, in fact, appear anywhere in the range from a 1/r distribution to a 1/r2 distribution, or even slightly outside of this range. Conclusions. The plasma density is distributed in such a way that it approximately decreases in a manner that is inversely proportional to the cometocentric distance. This is to be expected from the photoionisation of a collision-less, expanding neutral gas at a constant ionisation rate and expansion speed. The deviation from a pure 1/r distribution is in many cases caused by asymmetric outgassing over the surface, additional ionisation sources being present, electric fields accelerating plasma, and changing upstream solar wind conditions. A fast flyby mission can observe a radial distribution that deviates significantly from a 1/r trend if the outgassing is not symmetric over the surface. The altitude profile that will be observed depends very much on the level of outgassing asymmetry, the flyby velocity, the comet rotation rate, and the rotation phase. It is therefore essential to include data from both the inbound and outbound legs, as well as to compare plasma density to neutral density to get a more complete understanding of the radial distribution of the plasma.
CitationEdberg, N.J.T.; Johansson, F.L.; Eriksson, A.I.; Vigren, E.; Henri, P.; De Keyser, J. (2022). Radial distribution of plasma at comet 67P - Implications for cometary flyby missions. , Astronomy & Astrophysics, Vol. 663, A42, DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361/202243776.