Cathode spots in a magnetically steered arc source were studied under low-pressure noble gas (Ar) and reactive gas (N2, O2) atmospheres. The plasma was observed using a streak camera coupled with a long-distance microscope to study the evolution of cathode spots with high temporal and spatial resolution. We find two well-known types of cathode spots: “type 1” for less bright spots eroding the compound layer on the cathode surface and bright “type 2” spots on (clean) metallic surfaces. Cathode spots are characterized by a sequence of microexplosions that give the impression of a moving spot, which, in the presence of a magnetic field, is generally in the retrograde direction. However, the apparent displacement can also go in the opposite, the Amperian direction, especially when nitrogen is present. In oxygen, spot ignition often happens in approximately the same location repeatedly. For type 2 spots, we detected an apparent motion mainly in the retrograde direction with distinct jumps to new locations. Via the effects of spot appearance, we note the competing effects of cathode cleaning by spot-induced material removal (erosion) and compound formation in the presence of reactive gas. The streak images were analyzed by fast Fourier transformation, and we found that the arc fluctuations are stochastic without specific frequencies. The colored random noise (CRN) index tends to be reduced in the presence of a compound layer, indicating an enhanced spot ignition probability. A reduced CRN index implies reduced feedback (influence) of previously active spots, which is most apparent in the presence of elevated oxygen pressure.

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