Electron heat flux dropouts in the solar wind: Evidence for interplanetary magnetic field reconnection?


  • D. J. McComas,

  • J. T. Gosling,

  • J. L. Phillips,

  • S. J. Bame,

  • J. G. Luhmann,

  • E. J. Smith


Electron heat flux dropout events have been observed in the solar wind using the ISEE 3 plasma electron data set. These events manifest themselves as dropouts of the solar wind halo electrons which are normally found streaming outward along the local magnetic field. These dropouts leave nearly isotropic distributions of solar wind halo electrons, and consequently, the electron heat flux in these events is reduced to near the observational noise level. We have examined ISEE 3 data from shortly after launch (August 16, 1978) through the end of 1978 and identified 25 such events ranging in duration from 20 min to over 11 hours. Comparison with the ISEE 3 magnetometer data indicates that these intervals nearly always occur in conjunction with large rotations of the interplanetary magnetic field, particularly those rotations associated with spacecraft passages through the heliospheric current sheet. Statistical analyses of the plasma and magnetic field data for the 25 dropout intervals indicate that heat flux dropouts generally occur in association with high plasma densities, low plasma velocities, low ion and electron temperatures, and low magnetic field magnitudes. A second set of 25 intervals chosen specifically to lie at large field rotations, but at times at which no heat flux dropouts were observed, do not show these characteristic plasma variations. This suggests that the dropout intervals comprise a unique set of events. Since the hot halo electrons normally found streaming outward from the Sun along the interplanetary magnetic field (the solar wind electron heat flux) are a result of direct magnetic connection to the hot solar corona, heat flux dropout intervals may indicate that the spacecraft is sampling plasma regimes which are magnetically disconnected from the Sun and instead are connected to the outer heliosphere at both ends. The close association of electron heat flux dropout events with sector boundaries, where the field topology is best suited for magnetic reconnection, provides additional support for this interpretation.