Articles | Volume 30, issue 5
Regular paper
25 May 2012
Regular paper |  | 25 May 2012

More about arc-polarized structures in the solar wind

S. Haaland, B. Sonnerup, and G. Paschmann

Abstract. We report results from a Cluster-based study of the properties of 28 arc-polarized magnetic structures (also called rotational discontinuities) in the solar wind. These Alfvénic events were selected from the database created and analyzed by Knetter (2005) by use of criteria chosen to eliminate ambiguous cases. His studies showed that standard, four-spacecraft timing analysis in most cases lacks sufficient accuracy to identify the small normal magnetic field components expected to accompany such structures, leaving unanswered the question of their existence. Our study aims to break this impasse. By careful application of minimum variance analysis of the magnetic field (MVAB) from each individual spacecraft, we show that, in most cases, a small but significantly non-zero magnetic field component was present in the direction perpendicular to the discontinuity. In the very few cases where this component was found to be large, examination revealed that MVAB had produced an unusual and unexplained orientation of the normal vector. On the whole, MVAB shows that many verifiable rotational discontinuities (Bn ≠ 0) exist in the solar wind and that their eigenvalue ratio (EVR = intermediate/minimum variance) can be extremely large (up to EVR = 400). Each of our events comprises four individual spacecraft crossings. The events include 17 ion-polarized cases and 11 electron-polarized ones. Fifteen of the ion events have widths ranging from 9 to 21 ion inertial lengths, with two outliers at 46 and 54. The electron-polarized events are generally thicker: nine cases fall in the range 20–71 ion inertial lengths, with two outliers at 9 and 13. In agreement with theoretical predictions from a one-dimensional, ideal, Hall-MHD description (Sonnerup et al., 2010), the ion-polarized events show a small depression in field magnitude, while the electron-polarized ones tend to show a small enhancement. This effect was also predicted by Wu and Lee (2000). Judging only from the sense of the plasma flow across our DDs, their propagation appears to be sunward as often as anti-sunward. However, we argue that this result can be misleading as a consequence of the possible presence of magnetic islands within the DDs. How the rotational discontinuities come into existence, how they evolve with time, and what roles they play in the solar wind remain open questions.