Initial Observations of the Nightside Ionosphere of Venus from Pioneer Venus Orbiter Radio Occultations

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Science  06 Jul 1979:
Vol. 205, Issue 4401, pp. 99-102
DOI: 10.1126/science.205.4401.99


Pioneer Venus orbiter dual-frequency radio occultation measurements have produced many electron density profiles of the nightside ionosphere of Venus. Thirty-six of these profiles, measured at solar zenith angles (χ) from 90.60° to 163.5°, are discussed here. In the "deep" nightside ionosphere (χ > 110°), the structure and magnitude of the ionization peak are highly variable; the mean peak electron density is 16,700 ± 7,200 (standard deviation) per cubic centimeter. In contrast, the altitude of the peak remains fairly constant with a mean of 142.2 ± 4.1 kilometers, virtually identical to the altitude of the main peak of the dayside terminator ionosphere. The variations in the peak ionization are not directly related to contemporal variations in the solar wind speed. It is shown that electron density distributions similar to those observed in both magnitude and structure can be produced by the precipitation on the nightside of Venus of electron fluxes of about 108 per square centimeter per second with energies less than 100 electron volts. This mechanism could very likely be responsible for the maintenance of the persistent nightside ionosphere of Venus, although transport processes may also be important.