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Shapes of Electron Density Structures in The Dayside Mars Ionosphere

By Catherine Diéval, Department of Physics, Lancaster University, UK.

The dayside Mars ionosphere is thought to be reasonably well understood (see e.g. a review by Withers, 2009). The top of the ionosphere is influenced, among various factors, by localized crustal magnetic fields (e.g. Acuña et al., 1999), solar EUV and solar wind input, in the absence of a global magnetic moment. However a peculiar ionospheric feature is still the subject of ongoing research: non-horizontal electron density structures are regularly observed in localized areas with strong and near vertical crustal magnetic fields, in the topside ionospheric levels remotely sampled by the MARSIS radar (Picardi et al., 2004) onboard the Mars Express orbiter (e.g. Andrews et al. 2014; Diéval et al., 2015; Duru et al., 2006; Gurnett et al., 2005). These structures are detectable via oblique echoes returned to the radar after it sends a radio wave pulse through the ionosphere.The reflectors often appear at higher apparent altitude than the surrounding ionosphere, and so are nicknamed "bulges".

Previous studies also used radar returns uncorrected for signal dispersion. Actually, the group velocity of the radio waves varies with the refractive index of the plasma layers encountered, until reflection occurs. The apparent ranges of the received echoes are calculated using the time delays of the echoes and assuming the speed of light in vacuum. However this leads to overestimating the ranges,so interpretations on the shape of the structures based on these are uncertain.

Our work (Diéval et al., 2018), is a statistical study using timeseries of electron density profiles (electron density function of altitude, corrected for signal dispersion) to study the shape of 48 structures, in their full frequency (thus altitude) range, during the period that Mars Express passes over them.

Figure 1 shows that at any frequency, the most frequent shape is the bulge, dwarfing three other types of detected shapes: dips, downhill slopes and uphill slopes. All these shapes are inclined, thus able to reflect oblique echoes. Interestingly, bulges were reproduced in simulation results of Matta et al. (2015).

For more information, see the paper below:

Diéval, C., Kopf, A. J., & Wild, J. A. (2018). Shapes of magnetically controlled electron density structures in the dayside Martian ionosphere. Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, 123, 3919–3942. https://doi.org/10.1002/2017JA025140

Figure 1: Distribution of the four simplest shapes of structures as a function of frequency, for the 48 events, displayed as colored symbols: bulges (red dots), dips (black diamonds), uphill slopes (blue ‘x’), downhill slopes (green ‘+’). Data points at frequency levels within in the sensitivity gaps are not displayed.