In situ discovery of an electrostatic potential, trapping electrons and mediating fast reconnection in the Earth's magnetotail.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Plasma Science Fusion Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA.
Physical Review Letters (Impact Factor: 7.73). 02/2005; 94(2):025006. DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.94.025006
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT Anisotropic electron phase space distributions, f, measured by the Wind spacecraft in a rare crossing of a diffusion region in Earth's far magnetotail (60 Earth radii), are analyzed. We use the measured f to probe the electrostatic and magnetic geometry of the diffusion region. For the first time, the presence of a strong electrostatic potential (1 kV) within the ion diffusion region is revealed. This potential has far reaching implications for the reconnection process; it accounts for the observed acceleration of the unmagnetized ions out of the reconnection region and it causes all thermal electrons be trapped electrostatically. The trapped electron motion implies that the thermal part of the electron distributions are symmetric around v( parallel)=0: f(v( parallel),v( perpendicular)) approximately f(-v( parallel),v( perpendicular)). It follows that the field aligned currents in the diffusion region are limited and fast magnetic reconnection is mediated.

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