In situ observations of meteor smoke particles (MSP) during the Geminids 2010: constraints on MSP size, work function and composition
We present in situ observations of meteoric smoke particles (MSP) obtained during three sounding rocket flights in December 2010 in the frame of the final campaign of the Norwegian-German ECOMA project (ECOMA = Existence and Charge state Of meteoric smoke particles in the Middle Atmosphere). The flights were conducted before, at the maximum activity, and after the decline of the Geminids which is one of the major meteor showers over the year. Measurements with the ECOMA particle detector yield both profiles of naturally charged particles (Faraday cup measurement) as well as profiles of photoelectrons emitted by the MSPs due to their irradiation by photons of a xenon-flash lamp. The column density of negatively charged MSPs decreased steadily from flight to flight which is in agreement with a corresponding decrease of the sporadic meteor flux recorded during the same period. This implies that the sporadic meteors are a major source of MSPs while the additional influx due to the shower meteors apparently did not play any significant role. Surprisingly, the profiles of photoelectrons are only partly compatible with this observation: while the photoelectron current profiles obtained during the first and third flight of the campaign showed a qualitatively similar behaviour as the MSP charge density data, the profile from the second flight (i.e., at the peak of the Geminids) shows much smaller photoelectron currents. This may tentatively be interpreted as a different MSP composition (and, hence, different photoelectric properties) during this second flight, but at this stage we are not in a position to conclude that there is a cause and effect relation between the Geminids and this observation. Finally, the ECOMA particle detector used during the first and third flight employed three instead of only one xenon flash lamp where each of the three lamps used for one flight had a different window material resulting in different cut off wavelengths for these three lamp types. Taking into account these data along with simple model estimates as well as rigorous quantum chemical calculations, it is argued that constraints on MSP sizes, work function and composition can be inferred. Comparing the measured data to a simple model of the photoelectron currents, we tentatively conclude that we observed MSPs in the 0.5–3 nm size range with generally increasing particle size with decreasing altitude. Notably, this size information can be obtained because different MSP particle sizes are expected to result in different work functions which is both supported by simple classical arguments as well as quantum chemical calculations. Based on this, the MSP work function can be estimated to lie in the range from ~4–4.6 eV. Finally, electronic structure calculations indicate that the low work function of the MSP measured by ECOMA indicates that Fe and Mg hydroxide clusters, rather than metal silicates, are the major constituents of the smoke particles.