Citizen Scientists Discover A Mysterious Aurora, "Steve"

Experts have never seen anything like this.

Over the course of two years, a group of citizen scientists wandered across the Canadian wilderness on the hunt for an unexplainable aurora. These so-called “aurora chasers” managed to capture images of a light show, the likes of which they’d never seen before.

The arcs of light were much lower in the sky than the Aurora Borealis, which led experts to believe they were “proton arcs,” or temporary and dim subauroral lights. But images revealed they were brighter and lower to the ground than any proton arcs that have been observed.

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Since researchers were unable to classify this phenomenon, the citizen scientists took it upon themselves and named their discovery “Steve.”

Steve and the Milky Way, Childs Lake, Manitoba.

Krista Trinder

Steve has been observed on 30 dates from 2015 and 2016 and every time was more breathtaking than the next. Unlike the tall and winding Aurora Borealis, Steve is a vibrant ribbon of purple light that emanates smaller green wisps. The citizen scientists said the bizarre glowing band moved westward and “resembled a picket fence” when it expelled its green light for minutes at a time.

In an attempt to classify Steve, NASA scientist Elizabeth A. MacDonald and her colleagues made use of three European Space Agency aurora-tracking satellites, named as Swarm. Their study, published in the journal Science Advances, revealed that this narrow part of the sky showed signs of experiencing a subauroral ion drift (SAID), or an intense flow of ions and free electrons in the Earth’s atmosphere. But that phenomenon has never been observed to create bright beams of light.

MacDonald’s team is planning on further investigating this peculiar discovery, but they’ve decided to let Steve keep its name. They even gave it an backronym, “Strong Thermal Emissions Velocity Enchantment.”

And thank goodness, nothing describes the sheer beauty of these atmospheric lights than a name like STEVE.

An early evening appearance by Steve over Helena Lake Ranch, BC, Canada. Steve was visible for about an hour before disappearing into the night sky.

Andy Witteman - @CNLastro