Publication: First High-resolution Observations of Interstellar Pickup Ion Mediated Shocks in the Outer Heliosphere

Aug. 2, 2022

This study reports the first high-time-resolution observations of interstellar pickup ions (PUIs) in the outer heliosphere, including the first high-resolution observations of PUIs mediating shocks collected anywhere. These new data were enabled by a clever flight software reprogramming of the Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP) instrument on New Horizons to provide ~30 minutes resolution as compared to the previous ~24 hr time resolution. This time resolution is sufficient to resolve the shock structures and quantify the particle heating across these shocks. In the ~10 months of initial data, we observed seven relatively small shocks, including one reverse shock. We find that the PUIs are preferentially compressed and heated across the shocks, indicating compression ratios from ~1.2-1.8, with little heating for values less than ~1.5 and progressively more PUI heating for larger compression ratios. In contrast, core solar wind properties did not show consistent changes across the shocks, indicating that these particles (1) participate little in the large-scale fluid-like interactions of the outer heliosphere’s combined solar wind and PUI plasma and (2) cannot be used to characterize PUI-mediated shocks as prior studies sought to do. All six forward shock crossings showed gradual increases in PUI pressure over shock widths of ~0.05-0.13 au, which is roughly three decades larger than characteristic particle scales such as the PUI gyroradii. The new high-resolution observations and results described here are important for understanding shocks in the outer heliosphere, the termination shock, and more broadly for PUI-mediated shocks across many astrophysical systems.

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