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The preferential orientation of magnetic switchbacks, implications for solar magnetic flux transport

Presentation #304.02 in the session Understanding the Formation and Evolution of Ambient and Transient Solar Wind Outflow.

Published onOct 20, 2022

The preferential orientation of magnetic switchbacks, implications for solar magnetic flux transport

Magnetic switchbacks in the solar wind are large deflections of the magnetic field vector, often reversing its radial component, and associated with a velocity spike consistent with their Alfvénic nature. The Parker Solar Probe (PSP) mission revealed that they were a dominant feature of the near-Sun solar wind. Where and how they are formed remains unclear and subject to discussion.

We investigate the orientation of the magnetic field deflections in switchbacks to determine if they are characterised by a possible preferential orientation. We compute the deflection angles (φ, θ) of the magnetic field relative to the theoretical Parker spiral direction for encounters 1 to 9 of the PSP mission. We first characterize the distribution of these deflection angles for quiet solar wind intervals, and assess the precision of the Parker model as a function of distance from the Sun. We then assume that the solar wind is composed of two populations, the background quiet solar wind and the population of switchbacks, characterized by larger fluctuations. We model the total distribution of deflection angles we observe in the solar wind as a weighed sum of two distinct normal distributions, each corresponding to one of the population. We fit the observed data with our model using a Monte-Carlo Markov Chain algorithm and retrieve the most probable mean vector and covariance matrix coefficients of the two Gaussian functions, as well as the population proportion.

We first confirm that the Parker spiral is a valid model for quiet solar wind intervals at PSP distances. We then find that the fitted switchback population presents a systematic bias in its deflections, with a mean vector consistently shifted towards lower values of φ (-5.52° on average) and θ (-2.15° on average) compared to the quiet solar wind population. This results holds for all encounters but E6, and regardless of the magnetic field main polarity. This implies a marked preferential orientation of switchbacks in the clockwise direction in the ecliptic plane, and we discuss this result and its implications in the context of the existing switchback formation theories.