The process of magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling involves the transport of vast quantities of energy and momentum between a magnetized planet and its space environment, or magnetosphere. This transport involves extended, global sheets of electrical current, which flows along magnetic field lines. Some of the charged particles, which carry this current rain down onto the planet’s upper atmosphere and excite aurorae–beautiful displays of light close to the magnetic poles, which are an important signature of the physics of the coupling process. The Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn all have magnetospheres, but the detailed physical origin of their auroral emissions differs from planet to planet. The Earth’s aurora is principally driven by the interaction of its magnetosphere with the upstream solar wind—a flow of plasma continually emanating from the Sun. This interaction imposes a particular pattern of flow on the plasma within the magnetosphere, which in turn determines the morphology and intensity of the currents and aurorae. Jupiter, on the other hand, is a giant rapid rotator, whose main auroral oval is thought to arise from the transport of angular momentum between the upper atmosphere and the rotating, disc-like plasma in the magnetosphere. Saturn exhibits auroral behavior consistent with a solar wind–related mechanism, but there is also regular variability in Saturn’s auroral emissions, which is consistent with rotating current systems that transport energy between the magnetospheric plasma and localized vortices of flow in the upper atmosphere/ionosphere.
N. Achilleos, L. C. Ray, and J. N. Yates
Planetary aurorae are some of the most iconic and brilliant (in all senses of that word) indicators not only of the interconnections on Planet Earth, but that these interconnections pertain throughout the entire Solar System as well. They are testimony to the centrality of the Sun, not just in providing the essential sunlight that drives weather systems and makes habitability possible, but also in generating a high velocity wind of electrically charged particles—known as the Solar Wind—that buffets each of the planets in turn as it streams outward through interplanetary space. Aurorae are created when electrically charged particles—predominantly negatively charged electrons or positive ions such as protons, the nuclei of hydrogen—crash into the atoms and molecules of a planetary or lunar atmosphere. Such particles can excite the electrons in atoms and molecules from their ground state to higher levels. The atoms and molecules that have been excited by these high-energy collisions can then relax; the emitted radiation is at certain well-defined wavelengths, giving characteristic colors to the aurorae. Just how many particles, how much atmosphere, and what strength of magnetic field are required to create aurorae is an open question. But giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn have aurorae, as does Earth. Some moons also show these emissions. Overall, the aurorae of the Solar System are very varied, variable, and exciting.
Edik Dubinin, Janet G. Luhmann, and James A. Slavin
Knowledge about the solar wind interactions of Venus, Mars, and Mercury is rapidly expanding. While the Earth is also a terrestrial planet, it has been studied much more extensively and in far greater detail than its companions. As a result we direct the reader to specific references on that subject for obtaining an accurate comparative picture. Due to the strength of the Earth’s intrinsic dipole field, a relatively large volume is carved out in interplanetary space around the planet and its atmosphere. This “magnetosphere” is regarded as a shield from external effects, but in actuality much energy and momentum are channeled into it, especially at high latitudes, where the frequent interconnection between the Earth’s magnetic field and the interplanetary field allows some access by solar wind particles and electric fields to the upper atmosphere and ionosphere. Moreover, reconnection between oppositely directed magnetic fields occurs in Earth’s extended magnetotail—producing a host of other phenomena including injection of a ring current of energized internal plasma from the magnetotail into the inner magnetosphere—creating magnetic storms and enhancements in auroral activity and related ionospheric outflows. There are also permanent, though variable, trapped radiation belts that strengthen and decay with the rest of magnetospheric activity—depositing additional energy into the upper atmosphere over a wider latitude range. Virtually every aspect of the Earth’s solar wind interaction, highly tied to its strong intrinsic dipole field, has its own dedicated textbook chapters and review papers. Although Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars belong to the same class of rocky terrestrial planets, their interaction with solar wind is very different. Earth and Mercury have the intrinsic, mainly dipole magnetic field, which protects them from direct exposure by solar wind. In contrast, Venus and Mars have no such shield and solar wind directly impacts their atmospheres/ionospheres. In the first case, intrinsic magnetospheric cavities with a long tail are found. In the second case, magnetospheres are also formed but are generated by the electric currents induced in the conductive ionospheres. The interaction of solar wind with terrestrial planets also varies due to changes caused by different distances to the Sun and large variations in solar irradiance and solar wind parameters. Other important planetary differences like local strong crustal magnetization on Mars and almost total absence of the ionosphere on Mercury create new essential features to the interaction pattern. Solar wind might be also a feasible driver for planetary atmospheric losses of volatiles, which could historically affect the habitability of the terrestrial planets.