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date: 06 July 2020

Hot Planetary Coronas

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.

The uppermost layers of a planetary atmosphere, where the density of neutral particles is vanishingly low, are commonly called the exosphere or the planetary corona. Since the atmosphere is not completely bound to the planet by the planetary gravitational field, light atoms, such as hydrogen and helium with sufficiently large velocities, can escape from the upper atmosphere into interplanetary space. This process is commonly called Jeans escape, and it depends on the temperature of the ambient atmospheric gas at an altitude where the atmospheric gas is virtually collisionless. The heavier carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen atoms can escape from the atmospheres of the terrestrial planets only through non-thermal processes such as photo- and electron-impact dissociation, charge exchange, atmospheric sputtering, and ion pick-up. Theories of planetary exospheres have been based on ground-based and space observations of emission features such as the 121.6 nm Ly-α and 102.6 nm Ly-β hydrogen lines, the 58.4 nm helium line, and the 130.4 and 135.6 nm atomic oxygen lines. Such observations, together with in situ mass-spectrometer measurements, as at Titan, allow the density and temperature height profiles of the exospheric components to be constructed. The measurements reveal that planetary coronas contain both a fraction of thermal neutral particles with a mean kinetic energy corresponding to the exospheric temperature and a fraction of hot neutral particles with mean kinetic energy much higher than the exospheric temperature. These suprathermal (hot) atoms and molecules are a direct manifestation of the non-thermal processes taking place in the atmospheres. These hot particles lead to the atmospheric escape, determine the coronal structure, produce non-thermal emissions, and react with the ambient atmospheric gas triggering hot atom chemistry.

One of the brightest manifestations of these processes is a formation of hot oxygen corona around terrestrial planets. Oxygen atom is one of the lightest among heavy atmospheric species, so it is a best species to form corona, and another important aspect is that it produces a lot of observational evidence. The transport of suprathermal oxygen atoms to exospheric heights leads to the formation of hot oxygen coronas around Venus, Earth, and Mars. It has been well established by both observations and theoretical calculations that hot oxygen is an important constituent in the transition region between upper thermosphere and exosphere at terrestrial planets.

The study of the planetary coronas is based on direct observations and numerical simulations. It is a rarefied gas, therefore, production and transport of suprathermal particles into the corona requires solving a Boltzmann equation or a DSMC simulation. The stochastic simulation method had been widely used to investigate the formation, kinetics, and transport of suprathermal particles in the hot planetary coronas. This approach was first used to study the formation of the hot oxygen geocorona, taking into account the exothermic chemistry and the precipitation of magnetospheric protons and high-energy O+ ions from the ring current. It was found that only atmospheric sputtering results in the formation of the escape flux of energetic oxygen atoms, providing an important source of heavy atoms for the magnetosphere and geospace. A stochastic modeling approach was also applied to study the escape of hot oxygen atoms from the upper atmosphere of Mars and Venus; the kinetics and transport of suprathermal atoms and molecules in the hot oxygen corona at Jovian satellite Europa, which is an example of a highly non-equilibrium near-surface atmosphere; and the hot extended corona at Saturnian satellite Titan, which was directly measured by the spacecraft Cassini.