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Keywords:

  • MESSENGER;
  • Mercury;
  • magnetic field;
  • plasma distribution;
  • plasma pressure;
  • plasma sheet

[1] Localized reductions in the magnetic field associated with plasma pressure in Mercury's magnetospheric cusp and nightside plasma sheet have been routinely observed by the Magnetometer on the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft. We present a statistical analysis of near-equatorial magnetic depressions to derive the structure of Mercury's plasma sheet pressure. Because the plasma pressure in the magnetosphere correlates with solar wind density, the pressures were normalized to a Mercury heliocentric distance of 0.39 AU. A model magnetic field was used to map observations obtained on the ascending and descending orbit nodes to the magnetic equator and revealed the presence of plasma in a toroidal section extending on the nightside from dusk to dawn. Mapping the data to invariant magnetic latitude shows that the pressure is symmetric about the magnetic equator. The average pressure normalized for heliocentric distance is 1.45 nPa and exhibits a weak, 0.05 nPa/h, dusk-to-dawn gradient with local time. The plasma sheet pressure can vary between successive orbits by an order of magnitude. Unlike the predictions of some global simulations of Mercury's magnetosphere, the plasma enhancements do not form a closed distribution around the planet. This difference may arise from the idealized solar wind and interplanetary magnetic field conditions used in the simulations, which maximize the size and stability of the magnetosphere, thus promoting the formation of drift paths that close around the planet. For typical plasma sheet energies, 5 keV, the first adiabatic invariant for protons fails to be conserved even within 500 km altitude at midnight, implying that stochastic processes must be considered in plasma sheet transport.