Radio Science

Lifetime of a depression in the plasma density over Jicamarca produced by space shuttle exhaust in the ionosphere


  • P. A. Bernhardt,

  • J. D. Huba,

  • E. Kudeki,

  • R. F. Woodman,

  • L. Condori,

  • F. Villanueva


When the space shuttle orbiting maneuver subsystem (OMS) engines burn in the ionosphere, a plasma density depression, or “hole,” is produced. Charge exchange between the exhaust molecules and the ambient O+ ions yields molecular ion beams that eventually recombine with electrons. The resulting plasma hole in the ionosphere can be studied with ground-based, incoherent scatter radars (ISRs). This type of ionospheric modification is being studied during the Shuttle Ionospheric Modification with Pulsed Localized Exhaust (SIMPLEX) series of experiments over ISR systems located around the globe. The SIMPLEX 1 experiment occurred over Jicamarca, Peru, in the afternoon on October 4, 1997, during shuttle mission STS 86. An electron density depression was produced at 359 km altitude at the midpoint of a magnetic field line. The experiment was scheduled when there were no zonal drifts of the plasma so the modified field line remained fixed over the 50 MHz Jicamarca radar. The density depression was filled in by plasma flowing along the magnetic field line with a time constant of 4.5 min. The density perturbation had completely vanished 20 min after the engine burn. The experimental measurements were compared with two models: (1) SAMI2, a fully numerical model of the F region, and (2) an analytic representation of field-aligned transport by ambipolar diffusion. The computed recovery time from each model is much longer than the observed recovery time. The theory of ambipolar diffusion currently used in ionospheric models seems to be inadequate to describe the SIMPLEX 1 observations. Several possible sources for this discrepancy are discussed. The SIMPLEX 1 active experiment is shown to have the potential for testing selected processes in ionospheric models.