Articles | Volume 39, issue 4
Regular paper
02 Jul 2021
Regular paper |  | 02 Jul 2021

Ion distribution functions in magnetotail reconnection: global hybrid-Vlasov simulation results

Andrei Runov, Maxime Grandin, Minna Palmroth, Markus Battarbee, Urs Ganse, Heli Hietala, Sanni Hoilijoki, Emilia Kilpua, Yann Pfau-Kempf, Sergio Toledo-Redondo, Lucile Turc, and Drew Turner

We present results of noon–midnight meridional plane global hybrid-Vlasov simulations of the magnetotail ion dynamics under a steady southward interplanetary magnetic field using the Vlasiator model. The simulation results show magnetotail reconnection and formation of earthward and tailward fast plasma outflows. The hybrid-Vlasov approach allows us to study ion velocity distribution functions (VDFs) that are self-consistently formed during the magnetotail evolution. We examine the VDFs collected by virtual detectors placed along the equatorial magnetotail within earthward and tailward outflows and around the quasi-steady X line formed in the magnetotail at X-14RE. This allows us to follow the evolution of VDFs during earthward and tailward motion of reconnected flux tubes as well as study signatures of unmagnetized ion motion in the weak magnetic field near the X line. The VDFs indicate actions of Fermi-type and betatron acceleration mechanisms, ion acceleration by the reconnection electric field, and Speiser-type motion of ions near the X line. The simulated VDFs are compared and show good agreement with VDFs observed in the magnetotail by the Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms (THEMIS) and Acceleration, Reconnection, Turbulence and Electrodynamics of Moon's Interaction with the Sun (ARTEMIS) spacecraft. We find that the VDFs become more gyrotropic but retain transverse anisotropy and counterstreaming ion beams when being convected earthward. The presented global hybrid-Vlasov simulation results are valuable for understanding physical processes of ion acceleration during magnetotail reconnection, interpretation of in situ observations, and for future mission development by setting requirements on pitch angle and energy resolution of upcoming instruments.

1 Introduction

According to the near-Earth neutral line model (e.g., Baker et al.1996), magnetotail reconnection occurs at geocentric distances of 20–30 Earth radii (RE) (Nagai et al.1998, 2005) and may operate in the fast, impulsive regime as well as in the quasi-steady regime. The quasi-steady reconnection regime may involve formation of magnetic islands or flux ropes (O points), separated by multiple X lines (e.g., Slavin et al.1995). Generally, tail reconnection produces earthward and tailward outflows carrying northward and southward magnetic fields, respectively, which have been reported in a number of observational studies (e.g., Petrukovich et al.1998; Angelopoulos et al.2008a, 2013; Oka et al.2011; Runov et al.2012). Observations suggest that fast reconnection outflows are accompanied by strong enhancements in the north–south magnetic field component (Bz). The Bz enhancements associated with the earthward outflows typically exhibit a sharp increase at the leading edge referred to as the dipolarization front (Nakamura et al.2002; Runov et al.2009), followed by a gradual Bz decrease. The entire magnetic structure associated with the outflow is referred to as the dipolarization flux bundle (DFB) (Liu et al.2013). These transient magnetic structures are supported by localized current systems associated with a sharp plasma density boundary at the leading edge of fast reconnection outflows (Runov et al.2011). Their nature is different from that of field-aligned current-supported dipolarizations. On the tailward side of fast reconnection, the negative Bz variation includes a similar structure with a front on the leading edge (Li et al.2014; Angelopoulos et al.2013).

Reconnection affects the particle characteristics in many ways. Generally, reconnection is a process converting electromagnetic energy stored in magnetic fields into the kinetic and thermal energies of the plasma. The modifications in particle kinetics translate into characteristic changes in particle distribution functions, which show particle phase-space density as a function of velocity or energy that are collected in situ by particle detectors on board spacecraft (e.g., Ashour-Abdalla et al.1996). Interpretation of the observed distribution functions is, however, challenging because particles of different origin and history hit the detector during the sampling time. Kinetic modeling is required to understand the underlying physics of particle energization during reconnection. Full kinetic particle-in-cell (PIC) simulations are able to describe the kinetics of both ions and electrons with a limited mi/me ratio and within a limited spatial domain. Despite these limitations, velocity distribution functions (VDFs) obtained in PIC models of magnetotail reconnection have revealed patterns similar to observed ones. For example, Hoshino et al. (1998) studied ion VDFs (in the context of this paper, we will further focus on the ion kinetics) observed by the Geotail satellite and compared them with results of 2D PIC simulations. They showed that the ion VDFs near and in the reconnection region are non-Maxwellian and include counterstreaming beams and nongyrotropic and thermalized populations.

Hybrid models, which describe ions as particles and electrons as a massless charge-neutralizing fluid, have been shown to be capable of resolving ion kinetics in a spatial domain large enough to be regarded as a realistic magnetotail configuration. Krauss-Varban and Omidi (1995) conducted 2D hybrid modeling of the reconnection of the current sheet with anti-parallel magnetic field Bx(z) and By=Bz=0 (the conventional magnetotail coordinates with ex directed toward the Sun, ey duskward, and ez along the Earth's dipole was used), which may represent the distant magnetotail in a simulation box 120 RE× 20 RE. The simulations showed that ion VDFs changed from a nongyrotropic distribution at large Bx to a gyrotropic one as Bx→0. Lin and Swift (1996) extended this modeling by adding the guide field (By≠0) into the initial setup. They also reported significant changes in the ion distribution function with distance from Bx=0 with strong parallel anisotropy at large Bx. The increase in parallel temperature at large Bx was interpreted as a result of ion acceleration by slow shocks. Ion kinetics in a 2D hybrid reconnection model was studied by Scholer and Lottermoser (1998) and Lottermoser et al. (1998) who found that ion VDFs are structured and non-Maxwellian everywhere in the reconnecting current sheet. Specifically, they identified counterstreaming beam and partial ring distributions.

A number of simulations showed that near the neutral line, ions are unmagnetized and perform a complex motion known as Speiser (after Speiser1965) motion (e.g., Nakamura et al.1998; Arzner and Scholer2001). Farther toward the reconnection outflows, partial-shell ion VDFs were detected. Within the reconnection outflows, ion VDFs were counterstreaming.

Particle energization due to reconnection is not limited to the reconnection site. The reconnection outflows with embedded magnetic structures (DFBs or flux ropes) carry magnetic flux and are represented as localized enhancements in the cross-tail electric field Ey. Ambient plasma sheet ions interact with the DFB-associated electric fields and experience magnetic mirror-type acceleration gaining energy from the moving dipolarization front. This effect was identified in observations and modeled using a simple non-self-consistent particle-tracing model with prescribed electric and magnetic fields (Zhou et al.2010, 2012). While these simple test-particle modeling results do reproduce the main characteristics within observations, modeling of this effect with a self-consistent ion kinetic model is outstanding.

Energetic ions populating the near-Earth plasma sheet may also be picked up by the electric field at and behind the front and be transported toward the inner magnetosphere (e.g., Birn et al.2015; Runov et al.2015). Observations show that in these situations the VDFs develop an energy-dependent anisotropy. Specifically, the subthermal ion population is field-aligned, often forming two counterstreaming beams (Eastwood et al.2015), whereas the phase-space density of ions with velocities v as compared to the thermal velocity Vth appearing in the range Vth<v<3Vth is larger in the field-transversal direction (Runov et al.2017). The low-energy field-aligned beams and some indications of the field-transversal anisotropy at higher energies were found in PIC simulations (Pritchett and Runov2017). The ion VDFs with energy-dependent anisotropy were also modeled using test particle tracing utilizing electromagnetic fields in magnetohydrodynamics simulations (Birn and Runov2016), showing that the counterstreaming low-energy ion beams are formed by freshly reconnected particles following the reconnecting field line. Because of rapid earthward contraction of the reconnected field line, those particles are subject to Fermi-type acceleration. The field-transversal anisotropy of energetic particles is a result of two effects: the betatron energization of local particles due to an increase in the magnetic field strength (dipolarization) and the pickup of energetic particles from the ambient plasma sheet that experience additional energization due to convection toward a stronger magnetic field.

Due to non-self-consistency, the results obtained with the test-particle approach are limited. A proof with models that resolve ion kinetics self-consistently in a setup including the reconnection site as well as reconnection outflows at macroscopic scales is required. Further, the particle VDF modeling results are achieved by local simulations describing only the tail reconnection site. Processes of particle energization and transport are different in the earthward outflow that heads toward the dipole magnetic field and in the tailward outflow that has no obstacle ahead (e.g., Runov et al.2015, 2018). Thus, a realistic model with the dipole field at the earthward side of the simulation is needed to accurately describe the ion kinetics within the plasma sheet.

3D global hybrid simulations of storm-time magnetospheric dynamics with a focus on the magnetotail were performed in Lin et al. (2014). The model reproduced well the magnetotail dynamic features such as: bi-directional fast flows generated by reconnection, transient magnetic field structures like DFBs and flux ropes, particle energization, and injection into the inner magnetosphere. The simulated ion VDFs earthward (X=-16RE) and tailward (X=-31RE) of the reconnection site were shown to be multicomponent with lower energy inflow and higher energy outflow populations. Closer to the dipole (X=-10RE), where azimuthal drifts prevail over earthward convection, the ion VDFs were fairly gyrotropic and showed significant heating in the direction perpendicular to the magnetic field, indicating the betatron energization. The results showed many similarities with the observations.

It is worth noting, however, that particle kinetics during magnetic reconnection is extremely complex. It involves many processes, such as local particle acceleration by Fermi and betatron processes, pickup of non-local particles, Speiser-type particle motion (Speiser1965), and energization in the reconnection electric field (e.g., Birn et al.2012). Modern simulations are numerical experiments and require an analysis similar to experimental data analysis to understand simulation results. However, contrary to observations, simulations have an advantage of making different simplifications. Specifically, for the problem of ion kinetics in reconnection and reconnection-related processes, the first step may be done with the utilization of 2D models. In 2D, some aspects of ion transport, like replenishment of plasma evacuated from the reconnection site from the ambient plasma sheet, are not present. That allows us to study the dynamics in a simpler setup. After 2D effects are understood, the results of a numerical experiment with 3D dynamics will be easier to comprehend. Moreover, the global hybrid models that describe ion kinetics by solving the equation of particle motion (Lin et al.2014), although they provide a great tool to study ion-scale dynamics, often produce noisy distributions due to insufficient numbers of particles. Models that solve the Vlasov equation for distribution functions provide noiseless VDFs and, therefore, are a valuable tool to study the ion VDF evolution associated with magnetotail dynamics. The fundamental question to be addressed with this type of models is the evolution of ion VDFs during dynamic processes such as magnetic reconnection.

In this paper we discuss the results of 2D global hybrid-Vlasov modeling of magnetotail reconnection with the Vlasiator model (Palmroth et al.2018). We use a run including the entire magnetosphere in 2D. The tail dynamics of this run has been discussed in a number of papers (e.g., Palmroth et al.2017; Juusola et al.2018a, b; Grandin et al.2019b). Most recently, Grandin et al. (2019b) found that in this simulation, the transition region between the tail-like and dipolar field acts like a buffer and permits only some particles to precipitate into the ionosphere. Here, we aim to understand the tail VDFs in terms of reconnection processes in a self-consistent ion-kinetic setup using such a large simulation domain that it covers the reconnection regions and the outflows while also using a realistically sized Earth dipole. The simulation results are compared with in situ observations by THEMIS and ARTEMIS spacecraft in the magnetotail. The paper is organized as follows. First, in Sect. 2, we introduce briefly the Vlasiator model and THEMIS and ARTEMIS missions. In Sect. 3, we introduce the VDF characteristics within the earthward and tailward outflow regions and perform model–data comparisons. In Sect. 4, we end the paper with a discussion.

2 Model and data

2.1 Global hybrid-Vlasov simulation with Vlasiator

Vlasiator is a global hybrid-Vlasov model of the Earth's magnetosphere, which describes protons in the 6D phase space (von Alfthan et al.2014). A recent review (Palmroth et al.2018) describes the set of equations along with other code design features. Vlasiator describes ion physics self-consistently at ion-kinetic scales, featuring proton velocity distribution functions throughout the simulation box without statistical sampling noise. Electrons are a massless charge-neutralizing fluid, indicating that it is assumed that the electron pressure influence on Ohm's law is negligible. Unique in Vlasiator compared to many other simulations in the kinetic global regime is that the Earth's dipole strength represents the actual conditions within near-Earth space in 2D spatial setups (see Daldorff et al.2014). Therefore, the resulting temporal and spatial scales in the simulation can be directly compared to the Earth's magnetosphere without scaling. The temporal and spatial scales are given in SI units to facilitate direct comparisons.

An overview of the simulation run investigated in this paper is given in Fig. 1 (see also Supplement movie S1 in Palmroth et al.2017), in which the color coding depicts the proton number density in the simulation domain. While Vlasiator is fully 6D, here we outline a 5D run, representing 3D velocity distributions in the 2D noon–midnight polar plane (2D3V description). The simulation takes place in the geocentric solar ecliptic (GSE) XZ plane, in which the solar wind is therefore incoming from the right-hand-side wall of the simulation box, located at X=48 RE. The left-hand-side wall at X=-94RE defines the boundary of the simulation domain in the nightside, and the extent of the simulation box in the Z direction is comprised between the walls at Z=±56RE. The boundary conditions for these walls (except the one from which the solar wind is flowing in) are Neumann conditions, in which the normal derivative of each parameter is set to zero by copying values to the neighboring ghost cells. Periodic boundary conditions are applied in the out-of-plane direction (Y axis in the GSE frame). The solar wind bulk parameters are as follows: density of 1 cm−3, velocity of 750 km s−1 in the X direction, and the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) is purely southward with a magnitude of 5 nT. Such solar wind conditions are representative of that which can be observed during solar wind high-speed stream events (e.g., Grandin et al.2019a). The solar wind ion population is initialized with a uniform Maxwellian velocity distribution function, and the whole magnetosphere forms self-consistently, driven by the constant solar wind inflow and the 2D dipole field. The inner boundary of the simulation box is a perfectly conducting cylinder located at 4.7 RE from the Earth's center. In this run, the ordinary space has a resolution of 300 km and the velocity space has a resolution of 30 km s−1 in the whole domain. This choice makes it possible to investigate ion-scale physics self-consistently.

Figure 1Overview of the Vlasiator simulation run investigated in this paper. Color coding depicts the proton number density at time t=1704 s from the beginning of the simulation. The plasma sheet shows that reconnection has begun shortly before the depicted frame. The white rectangle shows the area on which the subsequent figures will focus.



We use observations from the Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms (THEMIS; Angelopoulos2008) and Acceleration, Reconnection, Turbulence and Electrodynamics of Moon's Interaction with the Sun (ARTEMIS; Angelopoulos2011) multi-probe spacecraft to compare them with the Vlasiator simulation results. The THEMIS and ARTEMIS probes are identical and equipped with a fluxgate magnetometer (FGM; Auster et al.2008), electric field instrument (EFI; Bonnell et al.2008), electrostatic analyzer, (ESA; McFadden et al.2008), and solid state telescope (SST; Angelopoulos et al.2008b). In the 2008–2009 flight years, the five THEMIS probes were on equatorial orbits and formed the Sun–Earth elongated conjunction at distances 7<R<30RE during the magnetotail science seasons. In 2010, the two most distant probes were injected to lunar orbit and traversed the Earth magnetotail with the Moon at R∼60 RE during about 3 d month−1. For the purposes of this study, we use the ion distribution function calculated from particle fluxes collected by the ESA in the energy range from  10 eV to 30 keV and by the SST in the energy range from  50 to 300 keV. The instrument response simulations with the GEANT-4 model were used to fill the gap between ESA and SST energy ranges (Runov et al.2015).

Figure 2(a) X component of the plasma bulk velocity in the magnetotail at t=1704.0 s in the area depicted with a white rectangle in Fig. 1. Blue (red) colors illustrate tailward (earthward) plasma flows. The black contours show magnetic field lines and red crosses indicate X points. The black arrows show the direction and relative magnitude of the magnetic field projected into the XZ plane at the five locations indicated with colored circles. (b–f) Slices of the 3D VDFs (velocity distribution functions) in the {vx, vz} plane at those five locations. The VDFs are shown in the plasma frame.


3 Simulation results and the model–data comparison

In the following subsections, we present a comprehensive analysis of the obtained ion velocity distribution functions (VDFs) within the tail. To illustrate our purpose, we show in Fig. 2 an overview of the tail area and the analysis methods. The time instant in Fig. 2 is the same as in Fig. 1, i.e., t=1704 s. Figure 2 illustrates the reconnection points in the tail, marked by red crosses, computed by identifying the saddle points in the magnetic flux function. The method is outlined in Hoilijoki et al. (2017) and further developed in Hoilijoki et al. (2019).

As time progresses, the main reconnection line has developed near X-13RE. The advantage of global hybrid simulations is that they allow us to study self-consistently evolving ion VDFs at a variety of spatial and temporal locations. Moreover, the VDFs simulated with the hybrid-Vlasov technique do not suffer from sampling noise and provide distributions without temporal or spatial integration, which helps Vlasiator excel at VDF analysis of moving structures and comparison with observations. Snapshots of ion VDF 2D cuts in the {vx, vz} plane at Z=0 earthward and tailward of the main X line are shown in Fig. 2b–f. The VDFs are taken at positions marked with circles of matching colors in Fig. 2a and they are shown in the plasma frame (i.e., v=0 corresponds to the local bulk velocity V). The black arrows depict the magnetic field direction and relative strength at the center of the colored circles. Figure 2 shows that the cold and isotropic ion VDFs flowing in from the lobes have become structured while reconnection has developed.

3.1 Earthward outflow

Figure 3 shows ion VDFs in the Vlasiator simulation detected earthward of the major X line at three time instances. At t=1662.0 s (simulation time) reconnection at X-13RE starts to develop (Fig. 3a). The unbalanced magnetic tensions on the reconnected field lines start to force the stretched field lines at X>-13RE to dipolarize. Slices of the VDF at the location indicated with a cyan circle are shown in Fig. 3b–d. The cuts in velocity space are made in the {v, v1}, {v, v2}, and {v1, v2} planes, respectively. The v direction is defined along the local magnetic field B, v1 is defined along the B×V direction, and v2 is defined along the B×(B×V) direction; thus, the defined velocity frame is depicted in Fig. 3a. At t=1662.0 s, the initially isotropic ion VDF at X-12RE starts developing transverse anisotropy (Fig. 3b–c). The {v1, v2} cut (Fig. 3d) shows that the ion VDF remains gyrotropic.

Figure 3(a) X component of the plasma bulk velocity in the magnetotail at t=1662.0 s with magnetic field lines and X points indicated as in Fig. 2. A virtual spacecraft is placed near (X=-12RE, Z=0) to monitor the plasma earthward from the major X line; arrows and labels indicate the local plasma frame (see text for details). (b–d) Slices of the 3D VDFs (velocity distribution functions) at the virtual spacecraft in the {v,v1}, {v,v2}, and {v1,v2} planes. (e–h) The same, but at t=1699.0 s. (i–l) The same, but at t=1758.0 s and using a different virtual spacecraft observing plasma on the same magnetic field line as in (e)(h) after it has convected earthward.


At t=1699.0 s, reconnection develops and the earthward bulk velocity increases (Fig. 3e). The ion VDF at X-12RE becomes structured, developing transversal anisotropy at high energies. Figure 3f–g shows two parallel counterstreaming beams appearing at lower energies. Phase-space density lacunae (i.e., empty regions) appear at pitch angles of ±10 and ±45 in the v>0 and v<0 half-spaces. The phase-space density gaps at low pitch angles are consistent with observations (Runov et al.2017) and test-particle simulations (Birn and Runov2016) and may be explained by the loss of particles along the field lines (Runov et al.2017). The gaps at 45 would require particle tracing to be explained. It is worth noting that at t=1699.0 s the virtual probe records a lower proton density than at t=1662.0 s, since the outflow jets evacuate the plasma sheet population and the only source of plasma replenishment is the inflow from the low-density lobes. In real 3D scenarios, the situation is more complex because the flank plasma sheet also contributes to refilling, a contribution that is variable depending on the spatial extent of the X line. The cold-lobe plasma has been energized by two processes: betatron acceleration, which manifests in the transverse ion VDF anisotropy, and parallel Fermi-type-B (a slingshot effect) (Northrop1963) acceleration, which produces the field-aligned beams. Figure 3h shows that the ion VDF becomes agyrotropic with higher phase-space density in the v1>0 half-space (note that the bulk velocity is subtracted from the VDF).

At t=1758.0 s, an O point forms at X-13.0RE between two X lines; the magnetic field at X>-11RE is compressed by earthward outflow from the main X line, which has migrated to X-12.5RE (Fig. 3i). At this time, we place our virtual detector closer to the Earth at X-9.5RE, on the same magnetic flux tube that was studied at X-12RE at t=1699.0 s in Fig. 3e–h. The {v,v1} and {v,v2} ion VDF cuts (Fig. 3j–k) show the same structure as at t=1699.0 s: transverse anisotropy at high energies and counterstreaming parallel beams at lower energies. Note that the lacunae at 45 pitch angles are now partly filled, whereas lacunae at low pitch angles persist. Contrary to that at t=1699.0 s, the {v1,v2} cut (Fig. 3l) shows a rather gyrotropic ring-type distribution.

3.2 Tailward outflow

Figure 4 shows magnetic field lines, the X component of the plasma velocity, and ion VDF cuts tailward of the reconnection region at three time instances in a similar setup as Fig. 3. Now our aim is to follow the evolution of ion distributions during reconnection development from an early stage at t=1742.0 s simulation time to a more mature state at t=1747.0 s and to investigate O line formation at t=1766.0 s.

Figure 4Same format as in Fig. 3, but focusing on the plasma tailward from the major X line at (a–d) t=1742.0 s, (e–h) t=1747.0 s, and (i–l) t=1766.0 s. Note that the plasma monitored in (i)(l) is located on the same magnetic field line as in (e)(h) after it has convected tailward.


At t=1742.0 s, when tailward reconnection outflow from the X line at X-13.3RE is about to reach the virtual detector location (X-16.5RE; Fig. 4a), the ion VDF in the plasma velocity frame is quasi-Maxwellian without considerable structuring (Fig. 4b–d). The situation changes dramatically when the front of anti-dipolarization (increased negative Bz embedded into the tailward outflow) reaches the virtual detector at t=1747.0 s (Fig. 4e). The ion distribution cuts in the flux tubes with increased |Bz|, shown in Fig. 4f–h, exhibit distinct features: a strong transverse anisotropy at high energies, counterstreaming parallel beams at lower energies, and a pronounced agyrotropy. It is worth noting that the observed changes in the ion VDFs are due to the arrival of a freshly reconnected plasma population within reconnected flux tubes, i.e., they characterize a spatial effect rather than temporal evolution of the VDF observed earlier. To follow the temporal evolution of the ion VDF, at t=1766.0 s we move our virtual detector tailward to X-19RE along with the reconnected flux tubes (Fig. 4i). The ion VDF at this spatiotemporal location shows, generally, the same features as at the earlier stage at X-16.5RE, but the parallel beams have shifted toward higher energies (Fig. 4j–k) and the agyrotropy has become less pronounced (Fig. 4l). The shift of the parallel beams toward higher energies indicates parallel acceleration.

Figure 5Examples of the ion velocity distribution functions observed within tailward reconnection outflows by THEMIS at X-23RE (a) and by ARTEMIS at X-60RE (b). Shown are 3D velocity distribution cuts in the plane perpendicular to the instantaneous magnetic field (v, vB×V; a) and in the plane that contains the magnetic field and the B×V vectors (b). The distributions are shown in the bulk velocity frame. Dashed circles indicate [1, 2, 3] × Vth, where Vth is the ion thermal velocity.


Figure 5 shows two examples of ion VDFs observed within tailward reconnection outflows at X-23RE and X-60RE by THEMIS-B on 1 March 2008 at 01:55 UT and ARTEMIS on 6 November 2014 at 21:41 UT, respectively. Both probes detected an enhancement in the magnetic flux transport rate [V×B]y>2 mV m−1, which allows us to interpret the observed fast flows as reconnection ejecta (Runov et al.2018). The VDFs are collected in the frame of reference moving with the instantaneous bulk velocity. The {v, vB×V} (where v=(B×[V×B])/B) plane cut of the VDF observed at X-23RE (panel a) indicates a pronounced agyrotropy of the thermal ion population. This resembles the agyrotropic VDF that appears at t=1747.0 s (Fig. 4h). The ion VDF observed by ARTEMIS (panel b) is characterized by counterstreaming field-aligned beams of subthermal and nearly thermal ions. The low-energy counterstreaming beams appear in simulated VDFs at t=1747.0 and t=1766.0 s (Fig. 4f and 4j).

3.3 Quasi-steady X line

Figure 6a shows the magnetic field configuration (contours) and the ion bulk velocity X component (colors) in the Vlasiator simulation at t=1950.5 s at and around a quasi-steady X line near X-14RE. Because the magnetic field is very weak at and near the X line and to avoid the uncertainty associated with mapping to the local field-aligned coordinate system, we use simulation coordinates (GSE) and show cuts of the 3D ion VDFs in the {vx, vz} (Fig. 6b–f), {vx, vy} (Fig. 6g–k), and {vy, vz} (Fig. 6l–p) planes at the five virtual detectors of matching colors shown in Fig. 6a.

Figure 6(a) X component of the plasma bulk velocity in the magnetotail at t=1950.5 s in the same format as in Fig. 2 with magnetic field lines, X point locations, five virtual spacecraft, and the magnetic field projection in the XZ plane at their locations. Slices of the 3D VDFs (velocity distribution functions) at the five locations indicated with colored circles are shown in the (b–f) {vx,vz} plane, (g–k) {vx,vy} plane, and (l–p) {vy,vz} plane. The VDFs are shown in the plasma frame.


At the time depicted in Fig. 6, the simulation exhibits a main X line at X-14RE and a secondary one at X-12RE, indicated by the red crosses. The position of the virtual detector placed near the main X line is shown by the black circle in Fig. 6a. The magnetic field at this position is weak and directed mainly along X. The corresponding ion VDF cuts, shown in the black boxes, indicate a half-disk, strongly agyrotropic type of distribution. The {vy, vz} cut (Fig. 6n), nearly perpendicular to the instantaneous magnetic field, indicates acceleration in the positive Y direction, i.e., along the cross-tail and reconnection electric fields. The high phase-space density population between -1000<vy<0 and -1000<vz<0 km s−1 is the inflowing low-energy ion population. It is interesting that the entire distribution is shifted in the {vy, vz} space toward negative vy, which is likely a signature of the Hall electric field Ez, normal to the current sheet (e.g., Hesse et al.1998). The presence of the Hall electric field in a thin current sheet prior to and during reconnection has also been shown in a number of observations (see, e.g.,  Lu et al.2019, and references therein).

The ion velocity distribution obtained by the virtual detector placed near the secondary X line at X-12RE (light blue circle in Fig. 6a and VDF slices in Fig. 6e, j, o) is also agyrotropic, showing acceleration by the reconnection and cross-tail electric fields along positive Y. Unlike the strict electric field acceleration along Y near the main X line, ions near the secondary X line are also accelerated in the positive X direction (i.e., earthward). The ion acceleration along X might be caused by the gyration in the increasing northward Bz (Speiser1965). Another source of earthward streaming ions might be particles that are picked up by the electric field Ey and convected earthward from the reconnection site (Drake et al.2009; Zhou et al.2016). Similar distributions are detected in the tailward outflow at X-16.5RE (light green circle in Fig. 6a and VDF slices in Fig. 6c, h, m). In this case, ions are accelerated in the +Y direction by the reconnection and cross-tail electric fields and in the X direction (tailward) due to gyration in the increasing negative Bz and/or because of pickup in the Ey. Notably, hook-like distributions in the {vx, vy} plane in earthward (at X-12RE) and tailward (X-16.5RE) outflows are nearly mirror symmetric. The described VDF signatures indicate a meandering ion motion in the nearly equatorial current sheet earthward and tailward of the reconnection line. These types of particle trajectories are attributed to Speiser-type (Speiser1965) motion, which includes quasi-adiabatic gyration around a stronger magnetic field outside the equatorial plasma sheet and meandering in a weaker magnetic field near the equatorial plane (e.g., Nagai et al.2015; Hietala et al.2015). Because our virtual detectors are placed at the magnetic equator, we observe only the meandering part of ion Speiser orbits.

It is worth mentioning the dotted structure of the Speiser hook-like distributions. Very similar structures were also reported in Nakamura et al. (1998) and interpreted as a gyro-bunch of cold ions. In the Vlasiator run this effect is caused by cold ions that came in from the lobes. This effect is most likely not observable in situ at near-Earth reconnection places because of the 3D nature of reconnection there that causes hot plasma sheet ion inflow from the dawnside (e.g., Birn et al.2015). At lunar distances, however, this effect may be observed by instruments with sufficient angular and time resolution. Signatures of the cold ions gyro-bunching were also noted in 2.5D PIC simulations of lunar-distant tail reconnection (Hietala et al.2015). The twist (or rotation) of the hook-like distribution is due to the Hall magnetic field, which twists the reconnected field lines. This effect was also reported in PIC simulations (Hietala et al.2015).

Figure 6f, k, p shows the ion VDF detected at X-9.5RE (dark violet circle in Fig. 6a), where the magnetic configuration sharply changes from stretched to more dipolar field lines. The magnetic field lies mainly in the XZ plane, thus the VDF {vx, vz} cut (Fig. 6f) is approximately in the {v,v2} plane. Accelerations in the ±vz directions and in the positive vx direction are visible. They depict the operation of Fermi-type field-aligned ion acceleration due to flux tube shrinking. The VDF {vx, vy} (Fig. 6k) and {vy, vz} (Fig. 6p) cuts indicate ion motion in the positive vy direction, which is likely due to the gradient drift of the ions energized by the convective electric field EyVxBz. This effect was reported in observations (Runov et al.2015, 2017) and in test-particle modeling (Birn et al.2015; Birn and Runov2016).

The ion VDF obtained near the O line at X-19RE (dark green circle in Fig. 6a) is shown in Fig. 6b, g, l. At this location, the magnetic field is directed predominantly along Z. The VDF shows a shell-like structure. It is generally gyrotropic (see the {vx, vy} cut; Fig. 6g), with distinct counterstreaming field-aligned beams that can be seen in the {vx, vz} (Fig. 6b) and {vy, vz} cuts (Fig. 6l).

4 Discussion and concluding remarks

We present results of global hybrid-Vlasov simulations of magnetotail dynamics during southward IMF (see Palmroth et al.2017; Juusola et al.2018a, for simulation details). The simulation results include 2.5D magnetic field, plasma moments, and 3D velocity distribution functions (VDFs). The simulation shows that reconnection with multiple X points occurs in the magnetotail with the main X point near X-13RE. We have examined the VDFs that were observed by virtual detectors placed in the vicinity of the main X point and within earthward and tailward reconnection outflows. The simulation setup (spatial resolution of 300 km) allows the study of this region, as the ion inertial length di is well resolved at the locations of the virtual detectors: from the leftmost (dark green) to the rightmost (dark violet) virtual detector in Fig. 6a, di is 433, 580, 929, 669, and 571 km.

The global hybrid-Vlasov simulations allow us to place virtual detectors at a variety of locations following the reconnected flux tubes along their transport toward the dipole within the earthward outflow and toward the weaker magnetic field within the tailward outflow. Vlasiator successfully reproduces characteristics of VDFs that were previously reported in observations: the transverse anisotropy of the energetic ion population that is associated with the betatron ion energization and counterstreaming ion beams at lower energies, which are signatures of Fermi-type ion acceleration along the contracting magnetic flux tubes. These effects have been observed in the near-Earth plasma sheet during substorm dipolarizations (Delcourt et al.1997) and within dipolarizing flux bundles embedded into earthward flows (Runov et al.2017) and appeared in particle-in-cell and test-particle simulations (Pritchett and Runov2017; Birn and Runov2016). In addition, the Vlasiator simulation allows us to study the ion distribution at a later stage, after the magnetic field line on which the plasma was located has convected earthward. It is found that the distribution becomes more gyrotropic but retains the transverse anisotropy and the counterstreaming ion beams when being convected earthward. Lacunae observed near the reconnection X point are on the other hand partly filled by diffusion processes when reaching the most earthward virtual detector.

The virtual detectors placed along the tail within the tailward outflow also present some signatures that have been detected in situ. Specifically, agyrotropy of energetic ions is observed, appearing in the simulations at the strong Bz gradient at the earthward edge of the plasmoid (or anti-dipolarization front, see, e.g., Li et al.2014). We find a similar feature in the VDFs observed tailward of a reconnection X line. Another distinct characteristic that appears in simulated and observed ion VDFs is the presence of the counterstreaming field-aligned ion beams at lower energies. However, some of the ion VDF characteristics, such as the pronounced transversal anisotropy of energetic ions within tailward reconnection outflow, are not present in the VDFs collected in situ. This may be because THEMIS probes' ability to measure ion pitch-angle distributions at energies higher than 30 keV is somewhat limited. Again, the simulation allows us to study the evolution of the ion distribution at a later stage and further tailward, finding that the features are overall preserved but that the parallel beams are seen at higher energies, indicating that parallel acceleration continues during the tailward convection of the plasma. The parallel energization is likely caused by the Fermi-type-A acceleration between the main and secondary X lines or the Fermi-type-B acceleration due to crossing from one side of a moving curved magnetic field line to the other (Northrop1963). Test-particle tracing is required to distinguish between these two processes and possible parallel acceleration due to nonadiabatic effects. In addition, the agyrotropy observed near the X point is less prominent at the most tailward location.

After magnetic flux and plasma were evacuated earthward and tailward from the vicinity of the main reconnection line, a quasi-steady reconnection with secondary X lines developed at X-14RE. The ion VDFs at virtual detectors placed along the reconnecting current sheet reveal the presence of ion populations accelerated duskward by the reconnecting electric field near the X line and ions performing Speiser-type motion in reconnecting magnetic field earthward and tailward from the X line. It is very difficult to observe, and therefore study, such distributions in situ in the near-Earth magnetotail, where the X line cross-tail length is limited (e.g., Nagai et al.2013). Because of this 3D nature, the plasma evacuated with reconnected flux tubes is replenished by the ambient plasma sheet particles (Runov et al.2015; Birn et al.2015). At lunar distances, where the ambient plasma sheet ion population is cooler, Speiser-type ion distributions within the reconnection jet, similar to that shown in Fig. 6, have been observed (Hietala et al.2015). While inherently a limitation of the simulation setup, the 2D nature of the Vlasiator run proves useful to specifically study the ion distributions associated with Speiser-type motion in the vicinity of a quasi-stable X line.

To conclude, we find that the Vlasiator VDFs reasonably represent the observed VDFs during similar conditions reported in the previous literature using in situ satellite observations, indicating that the 2D hybrid-Vlasov simulations provide a valuable tool to study the evolution of ion velocity distribution functions. The simulated distribution functions may be interpreted in terms of basic particle acceleration mechanisms, such as the Fermi-type and betatron accelerations, the direct acceleration of unmagnetized particles by the reconnection electric field, and the Speiser-type ion motion. Some important 3D effects, such as Shabansky-type ion acceleration by the moving dipolarization front (Zhou et al.2010), however, are not present due to the 2D model setup limitations. Another valuable tool that needs to be included in the modeling is backward particle tracing in time using Liouville's theorem. This method helps us understand how the particle distributions were formed (e.g., Birn et al.2015). This instrument is under development. It is worth stressing again that 2D global hybrid simulations with the Vlasiator code provide very helpful insights into the formation and evolution of ion distribution functions, allowing us in particular to analyze how a given ion distribution evolves as the magnetic field line to which it is associated is convected away from the reconnection site (earthward or tailward). Comparisons with in situ observations by the THEMIS and ARTEMIS probes have shown remarkable similarity in ion VDFs observed within reconnection outflows in the magnetotail and those resulting from Vlasiator simulations. However, some features of ion VDFs discovered in the discussed Vlasiator run are not readily observable in situ because of the 3D nature of near-Earth reconnection and/or due to instrumental limitations. The VDFs categorized in this paper may, however, be used as predictions for future magnetotail observations with higher temporal and angular resolutions than available now.

Code and data availability

Vlasiator (, Palmroth, 2021) is distributed under the GPL-2 open-source license at (Palmroth and the Vlasiator team, 2020). Vlasiator uses a data structure developed in-house (, Sandroos, 2019). The Analysator software (, Battarbee and the Vlasiator team, 2020) was used to produce the presented figures. The run described here takes several gigabytes of disk space and is kept in storage maintained within the CSC – IT Center for Science. Data presented in this paper can be accessed by following the data policy on the Vlasiator website. The THEMIS and ARTEMIS data are available at (last access: 28 June 2021) and via the SPEDAS system (, last access: 28 June 2021).

Author contributions

AR, MP and MG performed the preliminary investigation leading to the team effort. AR and MG led the study after the Hackathon, analyzed the data and wrote the manuscript. All authors provided scientific input during the Hackathon event and commented on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


Publisher's note: Copernicus Publications remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


The manuscript was outlined and drafted during the Second International Vlasiator Science Hackathon held in Helsinki, Finland, from 20–24 August 2018. The Hackathon was funded by the European Research Council grant no. 682068-PRESTISSIMO. We acknowledge Vassilis Angelopoulos for the use of the data from THEMIS and ARTEMIS missions. We thank Thiago Brito for his help with the software and Vlasiator data analysis during the Hackathon.

Financial support

The development of Vlasiator has been supported by the European Research Council (grant nos. 682068-PRESTISSIMO and 200141-QuESpace) and the Academy of Finland, Luonnontieteiden ja Tekniikan Tutkimuksen Toimikunta (grant nos. 312351, 309937, and 328893). The run shown in this paper was carried out with a Tier-0 PRACE grant (project number 2014112573) on HazelHen/HLRS. Lucile Turc is supported by the Academy of Finland grant agreement no. 322544. Heli Hietala's work was supported by the Royal Society University Research Fellowship URF/R1/180671 and the Turku Collegium for Science and Medicine. We gratefully acknowledge support from the NASA (contract NAS5-02099).

Review statement

This paper was edited by Christopher Mouikis and reviewed by two anonymous referees.


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Short summary
In collisionless systems like space plasma, particle velocity distributions contain fingerprints of ongoing physical processes. However, it is challenging to decode this information from observations. We used hybrid-Vlasov simulations to obtain ion velocity distribution functions at different locations and at different stages of the Earth's magnetosphere dynamics. The obtained distributions provide valuable examples that may be directly compared with observations by satellites in space.