Solar wind plasma interaction with solar probe plus spacecraft
3-D PIC (Particle In Cell) simulations of spacecraft-plasma interactions in the solar wind context of the Solar Probe Plus mission are presented. The SPIS software is used to simulate a simplified probe in the near-Sun environment (at a distance of 0.044 AU or 9.5 RS from the Sun surface). We begin this study with a cross comparison of SPIS with another PIC code, aiming at providing the static potential structure surrounding a spacecraft in a high photoelectron environment. This paper presents then a sensitivity study using generic SPIS capabilities, investigating the role of some physical phenomena and numerical models. It confirms that in the near- sun environment, the Solar Probe Plus spacecraft would rather be negatively charged, despite the high yield of photoemission. This negative potential is explained through the dense sheath of photoelectrons and secondary electrons both emitted with low energies (2–3 eV). Due to this low energy of emission, these particles are not ejected at an infinite distance of the spacecraft and would rather surround it. As involved densities of photoelectrons can reach 10 6 cm −3 (compared to ambient ions and electrons densities of about 7 × 10 3 cm −3), those populations affect the surrounding plasma potential generating potential barriers for low energy electrons, leading to high recollection. This charging could interfere with the low energy (up to a few tens of eV) plasma sensors and particle detectors, by biasing the particle distribution functions measured by the instruments. Moreover, if the spacecraft charges to large negative potentials, the problem will be more severe as low energy electrons will not be seen at all. The importance of the modelling requirements in terms of precise prediction of spacecraft potential is also discussed.