On the calculation of the effective polytropic index in space plasmas

Georgios Nicolaou, George Livadiotis, Robert T. Wicks

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


The polytropic index of space plasmas is typically determined from the relationship between the measured plasma density and temperature. In this study, we quantify the errors in the determination of the polytropic index, due to uncertainty in the analyzed measurements. We model the plasma density and temperature measurements for a certain polytropic index, and then, we apply the standard analysis to derive the polytropic index. We explore the accuracy of the derived polytropic index for a range of uncertainties in the modeled density and temperature and repeat for various polytropic indices. Our analysis shows that the uncertainties in the plasma density introduce a systematic error in the determination of the polytropic index which can lead to artificial isothermal relations, while the uncertainties in the plasma temperature increase the statistical error of the calculated polytropic index value. We analyze Wind spacecraft observations of the solar wind protons and we derive the polytropic index in selected intervals over 2002. The derived polytropic index is affected by the plasma measurement uncertainties, in a similar way as predicted by our model. Finally, we suggest a new data-analysis approach, based on a physical constraint, that reduces the amount of erroneous derivations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number997
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1 2019
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Information Systems
  • Mathematical Physics
  • Physics and Astronomy (miscellaneous)
  • General Physics and Astronomy
  • Electrical and Electronic Engineering


  • Polytropic index
  • Solar wind
  • Space plasmas


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