Faculty of Social Sciences

Titan’s ionosphere and dust: – as seen by a space weather station

  • Date: 11/3/2017 at 9:00 AM
  • Location: Ångström 2005, Lägerhyddsvägen 1, Uppsala
  • Doctoral student: Shebanits, Oleg
  • About the dissertation
  • Organiser: Institutet för rymdfysik, Uppsalaavdelningen
  • Contact person: Shebanits, Oleg
  • Disputation

Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, is the only known moon with a fully developed nitrogen-rich atmosphere, its ionosphere is detectable as high as 2200 km above its surface and hosts complex organic chemistry. Titan’s atmosphere and ionosphere has striking similarities to current theories of these regions around Earth 3.5 billion years ago. The Cassini spacecraft has been in orbit around Saturn since 2004 and carries a wide range of instruments for investigating Titan’s ionosphere, among them the Langmuir probe, a “space weather station”, manufactured and operated by the Swedish Institute of Space Physics, Uppsala.

This thesis presents studies of positive ions, negative ions and negatively charged dust grains (also called aerosols) in Titan’s ionosphere using the in-situ measurements by the Cassini Langmuir probe, supplemented by the data from particle mass spectrometers. One of the main results is the detection of significant (up to about 4000 cm-3) charge densities of heavy (up to about 13800 amu/charge) negative ions and dust grains in Titan’s ionosphere below 1400 km altitude. The dust is found to be the main negative charge carrier below about 1100 km on the nightside/terminator ionosphere, forming a dusty plasma (also called “ion-ion” plasma). A new analysis method is developed using a combination of simultaneous observations by multiple instruments for a case study of four flybys of Titan’s ionosphere, further constraining the ionospheric plasma charge densities. This allows to predict a dusty plasma in the dayside ionosphere below 900 km altitude (thus declaring it a global phenomenon), as well as to empirically estimate the average charge of the negative ions and dust grains to between -2.5 and -1.5 elementary charges. The complete Cassini dataset spans just above 13 years, allowing to study effects of the solar activity on Titan’s ionosphere. From solar minimum to maximum, the increase in the solar EUV flux increases the densities by a factor of ~2 in the dayside ionosphere and, surprisingly, decreases by a factor of ~3-4 in the nightside ionosphere. The latter is proposed to be an effect of the ionospheric photochemistry modified by higher solar EUV flux. Modelling photoionization also reveals an EUV trend (as well as solar zenith angle and corotational plasma ram dependencies) in the loss rate coefficient.