Spread F – an old equatorial aeronomy problem finally resolved?
Abstract. One of the oldest scientific topics in Equatorial Aeronomy is related to Spread-F. It includes all our efforts to understand the physical mechanisms responsible for the existence of ionospheric F-region irregularities, the spread of the traces in a night-time equatorial ionogram – hence its name – and all other manifestations of the same. It was observed for the first time as an abnormal ionogram in Huancayo, about 70 years ago. But only recently are we coming to understand the physical mechanisms responsible for its occurrence and its capricious day to day variability. Several additional techniques have been used to reveal the spatial and temporal characteristics of the F-region irregularities responsible for the phenomenon. Among them we have, in chronological order, radio star scintillations, trans-equatorial radio propagation, satellite scintillations, radar backscatter, satellite and rocket in situ measurements, airglow, total electron content techniques using the propagation of satellite radio signals and, recently, radar imaging techniques. Theoretical efforts are as old as the observations. Nevertheless, 32 years after their discovery, Jicamarca radar observations showed that none of the theories that had been put forward could explain them completely. The observations showed that irregularities were detected at altitudes that were stable according to the mechanisms proposed. A breakthrough came a few years later, again from Jicamarca, by showing that some of the "stable" regions had become unstable by the non-linear propagation of the irregularities from the unstable to the stable region of the ionosphere in the form of bubbles of low density plasma. A problem remained, however; the primary instability mechanism proposed, an extended (generalized) Rayleigh-Taylor instability, was too slow to explain the rapid development seen by the observations. Gravity waves in the neutral background have been proposed as a seeding mechanism to form irregularities from which the instability would grow, but the former are difficult to observe as a controlling parameter. Their actual role still needs to be determined. More recently, radar observations again have shown the existence of horizontal plasma drift velocities counter streaming the neutral wind at the steep bottom of the F-region which produces a fast growing instability from which a generalized Rayleigh-Taylor instability can grow. The mechanisms proposed would explain the rapid development of the large and medium scale irregularities that have been observed, including some seen only by radars. Nevertheless, a proper quantitative theoretical mechanism that would explain how these irregularities break into the very important meter scale ones, responsible for the radar echoes, needs to be developed. This paper makes a selective historical review of the observations and proposed theories since the phenomenon was discovered to our current understanding.