Zeqi Zhang, R. Desai, Y. Miyake
Mar 10, 2021
Journal name not available for this finding
A surprising and unexpected phenomenon observed during Cassini’s Grand Finale was the spacecraft charging to positive potentials in Saturn’s ionosphere. Here, the ionospheric plasma was depleted of free electrons with negatively charged ions and dust accumulating up to over 95 % of the negative charge density. To further understand the spacecraft-plasma interaction, we perform a three dimensional Particle-In-Cell study of a model Cassini spacecraft immersed in plasma representative of Saturn’s ionosphere. The simulations reveal complex interaction features such as electron wings and a highly structured wake containing spacecraft-scale vortices. The results show how a large negative ion concentration combined with a large negative to positive ion mass ratio is able to drive the spacecraft to the observed positive potentials. Despite the high electron depletions, the electron properties are found as a significant controlling factor for the spacecraft potential together with the magnetic field orientation which induces a potential gradient directed across Cassini’s asymmetric body. This study reveals the global spacecraft interaction experienced by Cassini during the Grand Finale and how this is influenced by the unexpected negative ion and dust populations.