By Jade Reidy, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Southampton, UK.
The formation mechanism of polar cap arcs is still an open question. Since they were first discovered (over a century ago), there have been conflicting reports of polar cap arcs forming on open field lines [e.g., Hardy et al., 1982; Carlson and Cowley, 2005] and on closed field lines [e.g., Frank et al., 1982; Fear et al., 2014]. It is possible that there are more than one type of formation mechanism [e.g., Newell et al., 2009; Reidy et al., 2017].
Reidy et al.  investigates the interhemispheric nature of polar cap arcs using low-altitude ultraviolet imaging, combined with particle data, to determine whether they occur on open or closed field lines. Figure 1 shows an example of an image from SSUSI (Special Sensor Ultra-Violet Spectrographic Imager) (left) with the corresponding SSJ/4 particle spectrograms (right). The SSUSI instruments, on board DMSP (Defence Meteorological Satellite Program) spacecraft, are UV imagers that scan across the polar regions, building up images over 20 minutes. The SSJ/4 particle spectrometer is also on board DMSP spacecraft and provides measurements of the particle precipitation directly above the spacecraft.
In Fig. 1 the SSUSI image has been projected on to a magnetic local time grid with noon at the top and dawn to the right. The black and grey dashed lines on the particle spectrograms and corresponding black and grey vertical lines on the DMSP footprint (black line on the SSUSI image) give an estimated position of the poleward edge of the auroral for the electrons and ions respectively (see Reidy et al.  for details). Multiple sun-aligned arcs can be seen poleward of this edge, hence assumed to be occurring within the polar cap. The arcs seen on the dawnside of the SSUSI image are associated with ion and electron precipitation (indicated by red bars on both the DMSP track and the particle spectrograms), similar arcs were also seen in the opposite hemisphere. These arcs are consistent with formation on closed field lines [Fear et al., 2014; Carter et al., 2017]. The arc seen on the duskside of the polar cap is associated with electron-only precipitation (indicated by yellow bars). This kind of particle signature is consistent with accelerated polar rain and is hence consistent formation on open field lines [Newell et al., 2009; Reidy et al., 2017].
Reidy et al.  investigated 21 events in December 2015 using SSUSI images and corresponding SSJ/4 data. Nine of these events contained arcs consistent with a closed field line mechanism, i.e. arcs associated with ion and electron precipitation present in both hemispheres (similar to the arcs on the dawnside of Fig. 1). Six of these events contained arcs that were associated with electron-only precipitation, consistent with an open field line mechanism (e.g. the duskside of Fig. 1). Examples of events containing arcs that were not, at first sight, consistent with either an open or a closed field line formation mechanism are also explored. This study shows the complex nature of polar cap arcs and highlights the needs for future study as there is still much to understand about their formation mechanism.
Please see the paper below for more information:
Reidy, J., R.C Fear, D. Whiter, B.S. Lanchester, A.J. Kavanagh, S.E. Milan, J.A. Carter, L.J. Paxton, and Y. Zhang. (2018), Inter‐hemispheric survey of polar cap aurora, J. Geophys. Res. Space Physics, 123. https://doi.org/10.1029/2017JA025153
Figure 1. An image from the SSUSI instrument on board DMSP spacecraft F17 is shown on the left. The time at the top of the image indicates the time when the spacecraft crossed 70 degrees magnetic latitude as it passed from dawn to dusk (i.e. left to right). The corresponding data from the SSJ/4 particle spectrometer is shown on the right with the electron spectrogram in the top panel and the ion spectrogram at the bottom. Precipitation associated with polar cap arcs is indicated on the DMSP track on the SSUSI image (indicated by a black line) and the particle spectrograms in red for ion and electron signatures and orange for electron-only signatures.