Magnetic field rotations in the high ion beta magnetosheath that are part of the magnetopause structure are expected to have only a small normal component. We have studied the properties of rotational discontinuities (RDs) under these conditions, viewed as the limit of weak intermediate shocks (ISs), by performing hybrid simulations with a reflecting wall boundary condition (piston method). With this dynamic formation, the sense and size of rotation are not arbitrarily predetermined, but rather evolve from the given upstream (magnetosheath) and downstream (magnetospheric) boundary conditions, similar to what takes place at the magnetopause. This work focuses on several aspects: the observed minimum shear of RDs, their width, their internal signature, and their relation to ISs in isotropic plasmas. Our simulation results are in agreement with the minimum shear observations, that is, the RDs choose the sense of rotation that corresponds to the minimum angle between the upstream and downstream field vector. The RDs are stable, with a unique scale size. Typical gradient scale half widths are one to four ion inertial lengths with a total width up to ten times of that, in agreement with magnetopause observations. We develop a generalized fluid theory of RDs and discuss the characteristic internal signatures of the rotational layer, comparing the kinetic simulation results to predictions from the generalized fluid theory. The results show that ion inertia, anisotropic pressure, finite Larmor radius effects, nonzero ion heat flux, and reflected ions all contribute to the signatures of RDs on kinetic scales. The RDs may have upstream or downstream wave trains, which become weak for high ion beta and small normal components of the magnetic field. We explain the presence and direction of wave trains in terms of the kinetic properties of the Alfven/ion-cyclotron mode. Away from the RD limit there is a smooth transition to weak intermediate shocks, which have small jumps close to expected Rankine-Hugoniot values. Apart from that, there are few kinetic plasma signatures that distinguish RDs from their neighboring ISs. However, noncoplanar ISs evolve in time into thin RDs. Using the properties of RDs and ISs, we make specific suggestions how these discontinuities can be distinguished observationally in the case of an isotropic plasma.
Journal of Geophysical Research (ISSN 0148-0227); 100; A7; p. 11,981-11,999