Xin Cao and Carol Paty
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.
A magnetosphere is formed by the interaction between the magnetic field of a planet and the high-speed solar wind. Those planets with a magnetosphere have an intrinsic magnetic field such as Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn. Mars, especially, has no global magnetosphere, but evidence shows that a paleo-magnetosphere existed billions of years ago and was dampened then due to some reasons such as the change of internal activity. A magnetosphere is very important for the habitable environment of a planet because it provides the foremost and only protection for the planet from the energetic solar wind radiation.
The majority of planets with a magnetosphere in our solar system have been studied for decades except for Uranus and Neptune, which are known as ice giant planets. This is because they are too far away from us (about 19 AU from the Sun), which means they are very difficult to directly detect. Compared to many other space detections to other planets, for example, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and some of their moons, the only single fly-by measurement was made by the Voyager 2 spacecraft in the 1980s. The data it sent back to us showed that Uranus has a very unusual magnetosphere, which indicated that Uranus has a very large obliquity, which means its rotational axis is about 97.9° away from the north direction, with a relative rapid (17.24 hours) daily rotation. Besides, the magnetic axis is tilted 59° away from its rotational axis, and the magnetic dipole of the planet is off center, shifting 1/3 radii of Uranus toward its geometric south pole. Due to these special geometric and magnetic structures, Uranus has an extremely dynamic and asymmetric magnetosphere.
Some remote observations revealed that the aurora emission from the surface of Uranus distributed at low latitude locations, which has rarely happened on other planets. Meanwhile, it indicated that solar wind plays a significant impact on the surface of Uranus even if the distance from the Sun is much farther than that of many other planets. A recent study, using numerical simulation, showed that Uranus has a “Switch-like” magnetosphere that allows its global magnetosphere to open and close periodically with the planetary rotation.
In this article, we will review the historic studies of Uranus’s magnetosphere and then summarize the current progress in this field. Specifically, we will discuss the Voyager 2 spacecraft measurement, the ground-based and space-based observations such as Hubble Space Telescope, and the cutting-edge numerical simulations on it. We believe that the current progress provides important scientific context to boost future ice giant detection.
The Martian ionosphere is a plasma embedded within the neutral upper atmosphere of the planet. Its main source is the ionization of the CO2-dominated Martian mesosphere and thermosphere by the energetic EUV solar radiation. The ionosphere of Mars is subject to an important variability induced by changes in its forcing mechanisms (e.g., the UV solar flux) and by variations in the neutral atmosphere (e.g., the presence of global dust storms, atmospheric waves and tides, changes in atmospheric composition, etc.). Its vertical structure is dominated by a maximum in the electron concentration placed at about 120–140 km of altitude, coincident with the peak of the ionization rate. Below, a secondary peak produced by solar X-rays and photoelectron-impact ionization is observed. A sporadic third layer, possibly of meteoric origin, has been also detected below. The most abundant ion in the Martian ionosphere is O2 +, although O+ can become more abundant in the upper ionospheric layers. While below about 180–200 km the Martian ionosphere is dominated by photochemical processes, above those altitudes the dynamics of the plasma become more important. The ionosphere is also an important source of escaping particles via processes such as dissociative recombination of ions or ion pickup. So, characterization of the ionosphere provides or can provide information about such disparate systems and processes as the solar radiation getting to the planet, the neutral atmosphere, the meteoric influx, the atmospheric escape to space, or the interaction of the planet with the solar wind.
It is thus not surprising that the interest about this region dates from the beginning of the space era. From the first measurements provided by the Mariner 4 mission in the 1960s to the contemporaneous observations, still ongoing, by the Mars Express and MAVEN orbiters, our current knowledge of this atmospheric region is the consequence of the accumulation of more than 50 years of discontinuous measurements by different space missions. Numerical simulations by computational models able to simulate the processes that shape the ionosphere have also been commonly employed to obtain information about this region, to provide an interpretation of the observations and to fill their gaps. As a result, the Martian ionosphere is today the best known one after that of the Earth. However, there are still areas for which our knowledge is far from being complete. Examples are the details and balance of the mechanisms populating the nightside ionosphere, or a good understanding of the meteoric ionospheric layer and its variability.