Scientists have discovered a new type of solar wind interaction with airless bodies in our solar system. Magnetized regions called magnetic anomalies, mostly on the far side of the Moon, were found to strongly deflect the solar wind, shielding the Moon's surface. This will help us understand the solar wind behaviour near the lunar surface and how water may be generated in its upper layer. Observational evidence for these findings will be presented by Drs. Yoshifumi Futaana and Martin Wieser at the European Planetary Science Congress in Rome, on Friday 24 September.
Atmosphere-less bodies interact with the solar wind quite differently than the Earth: Their surfaces are exposed without any shielding by a dense atmosphere or magnetosphere. This causes them to be heavily weathered by meteoroids or the solar wind, forming a very rough and chaotic surface called regolith. Previously, the solar wind was thought to be completely absorbed by regolith. However, recent explorations of the Earth's moon by the Chang'E-1, Kaguya and Chandrayaan-1 spacecrafts have revealed that this interaction is not that simple.
A significant flux of high energy particles was found to originate from the lunar surface, most probably due to the solar wind directly reflected off the Moon's regolith. "These results may change dramatically the way we understood the solar wind-regolith interaction so far," says Dr. Futaana of the Swedish Institute of Space Physics. "Since the solar wind is one potential source of water on the Moon, we need to make better models of the lunar hydrogen circulation in order to understand how water molecules form in its upper layers. Also, it will be possible to remotely investigate the solar wind-surface interaction on other airless bodies, such as Mercury or the Martian moon Phobos, by imaging the energetic hydrogen atoms that are reflected back to space when the solar wind hits their surface."
The current investigation was carried out with the Sub-keV Atom Reflecting Analyzer instrument which was developed in a collaboration between Sweden, India, Switzerland and Japan and flown onboard the Indian Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft. Scientists have mapped for the first time the energetic hydrogen atoms coming from the Moon, and found that up to one fifth of the solar wind protons reaching the lunar surface are reflected back to space. This may be a general feature of the atmosphere-less bodies, such as Mercury, meteorites and several moons of the giant planets. "In fact, during the close encounter of the European Mars Express spacecraft with Phobos in 2008, we detected signatures of reflected solar wind protons also from the surface of the Martian moon Phobos," says Dr. Futaana.
However, when Chandrayaan-1 flew over a magnetic anomaly (magnetized region on the Moon surface), the scientists detected significantly less reflected hydrogen atoms, meaning that the solar wind had not reached the lunar surface. In fact, the solar wind was found to be strongly deflected by an aggregation of magnetic anomalies in the southern hemisphere of the lunar far side. "We detected a strong flux of deflected solar wind protons. This clearly indicates that magnetic anomalies can shield the lunar surface from the incoming solar wind, in the same way as the magnetospheres of several planets in our solar system," says Dr. Futaana.
"It all depends on how strong the solar wind 'blows'. When the solar wind pressure is low, this 'mini-magnetosphere' expands, causing stronger shielding," adds Dr. Wieser, also of the Swedish Institute of Space Physics.
Figure 1: Spatial variation of the energetic neutral hydrogen flux over the magnetic anomaly close to the Gerasimovic crater. (a) High energy hydrogen flux with energy indicates a ~50% flux reduction inside the magnetic anomaly compared to the surrounding area. (b) Hydrogen flux with lower energy of 30-100 eV fills the magnetic anomaly. (c) The albedo (reflectivity) map of the Moon with the spacecraft trajectories (white lines).
Figure 2: Comparison between the reflected proton flux and the magnetic anomaly distribution on the Moon. (Left) Proton flux distribution observed by the SWIM sensor mapped on the lunar map (generated by Clementine). The black line shows a contour of the lunar magnetic anomaly. (Right) Magnetic anomaly distribution model based on Lunar Prospector data. The same contour as in the left panel is overlaid here.
European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) 2010
EPSC 2010 is organised by Europlanet, a Research Infrastructure funded under the European Commission's Framework 7 Programme, in association with the European Geosciences Union, with the support of the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) and the INAF Institute of Physics of Interplanetary Science (IFSI) in Rome. EPSC is the major meeting in Europe for planetary scientists. The 2010 programme comprises 48 sessions and workshops covering a wide range of planetary topics.
EPSC 2010 is taking place at the Angelicum Center - Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Rome, Italy from Sunday 19 September to Friday 24 September 2010.
Europlanet Research Infrastructure (RI)
Europlanet Research RI is a major (€6 million) programme co-funded by the European Union under the Seventh Framework Programme of the European Commission. Europlanet RI brings together the European planetary science community through a range of Networking Activities, aimed at fostering a culture of cooperation in the field of planetary sciences, Transnational Access Activities, providing European researchers with access to a range of laboratory and field site facilities tailored to the needs of planetary research, as well as on-line access to the available planetary science data, information and software tools, through the Integrated and Distributed Information Service. These programmes are underpinned by Joint Research Activities, which are developing and improving the facilities, models, software tools and services offered by Europlanet
The Swedish Institute of Space Physics (IRF) is a governmental research institute which conducts research and postgraduate education in atmospheric physics, space physics and space technology. Measurements are made in the atmosphere, ionosphere, magnetosphere and around other planets with the help of ground-based equipment (including radar), stratospheric balloons and satellites. IRF was established (as Kiruna Geophysical Observatory) in 1957 and its first satellite instrument was launched in 1968. The head office is in Kiruna (geographic coordinates 67.84° N, 20.41° E) and IRF also has offices in Umeå, Uppsala and Lund.
Institutet för rymdfysik, IRF, är ett statligt forskningsinstitut under Utbildningsdepartementet. IRF bedriver grundforskning och forskarutbildning i rymdfysik, atmosfärsfysik och rymdteknik. Mätningar görs i atmosfären, jonosfären, magnetosfären och runt andra planeter med hjälp av ballonger, markbaserad utrustning (bl a radar) och satelliter. För närvarande har IRF instrument ombord på satelliter i bana runt tre planeter, jorden, Mars och Saturnus. IRF har ca 100 anställda och bedriver verksamhet i Kiruna (huvudkontoret), Umeå, Uppsala och Lund.