Alfvén: magnetosphere—ionosphere connection explorers
The aurorae are dynamic, luminous displays that grace the night skies of Earth’s high latitude regions. The solar wind emanating from the Sun is their ultimate energy source, but the chain of plasma physical processes leading to auroral displays is complex. The special conditions at the interface between the solar wind-driven magnetosphere and the ionospheric environment at the top of Earth’s atmosphere play a central role. In this Auroral Acceleration Region (AAR) persistent electric fields directed along the magnetic field accelerate magnetospheric electrons to the high energies needed to excite luminosity when they hit the atmosphere. The “ideal magnetohydrodynamics” description of space plasmas which is useful in much of the magnetosphere cannot be used to understand the AAR. The AAR has been studied by a small number of single spacecraft missions which revealed an environment rich in wave-particle interactions, plasma turbulence, and nonlinear acceleration processes, acting on a variety of spatio-temporal scales. The pioneering 4-spacecraft Cluster magnetospheric research mission is now fortuitously visiting the AAR, but its particle instruments are too slow to allow resolve many of the key plasma physics phenomena. The Alfvén concept is designed specifically to take the next step in studying the aurora, by making the crucial high-time resolution, multi-scale measurements in the AAR, needed to address the key science questions of auroral plasma physics. The new knowledge that the mission will produce will find application in studies of the Sun, the processes that accelerate the solar wind and that produce aurora on other planets.
KeywordsAlfvén Cosmic vision Auroral acceleration region Space plasmas
Special thanks are due to the CNES/PASO team and EADS Astrium UK for their contributions. We thank Viktor Doychinov for his (post-proposal) UCL Masters degree project work which made a detailed study of some Alfven spacecraft sub-systems and confirmed the communications concept. All participants gratefully acknowledge the various funding bodies which supported their work.
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