Aurora watchers spot unknown phenomenon in nighttime sky

It looks like someone's in the sky with diamonds, but it sure isn't Lucy.

A rare natural phenomenon spotted in the nighttime sky has aurora chasers lighting up with excitement -- and they have chosen to call it "Steve."

Steve?

Yes, Steve.

The trend is believed to have originated in the Facebook group Alberta Aurora Chasers, where users have been sharing photos of a mysterious purple formation that has cropped up in multiple locations, referencing the streak only as "Steve."


Photo: Facebook

"Looks like Steve was hanging out above Clairmont, Ab, March 28th 2017 11.54pm," wrote one man.

"Help me out! How do you decide if it's (Steve) or not? Is there a link someone could share?" wrote another.

But where did the celestial phenomenon's nickname even come from?

According to CNN, aurora chaser Chris Ratzlaff came up with the name "Steve" as a nod to the animated movie "Over the Hedge."

In the popular children's flick, the main characters, who are all animals, become frightened by a giant hedge since they have no idea what it is.

One of the characters suggests she would be a lot less afraid of the hedge if she knew what it was called, to which another animal blurts out, "Let's call it Steve!"

And thus, "Steve" was born.

But beyond its adorable cartoon origin, one must wonder what "Steve" actually is on a scientific level.

Enter Eric Donovan, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Calgary, who began to study the phenomenon after a group of Alberta Aurora Chasers he met at a physics talk introduced him to "Steve."

Initially, some members of the group believed they were looking at a "proton arc," which is a rare type of aurora.

Donovan was immediately able to discern that "Steve" couldn't be a proton arc because they are not visible to the human eye.

Eventually, Donovan and his colleagues took a deeper look into "Steve" using the European Space Agency's Swarm, which is a group of satellites designed to study Earth's magnetic field.

According to the ESA, Donovan was eventually able to match a ground sighting of Steve to an overpass of one of the three Swarm satellites.

After he studied the data recorded by the satellite, he was finally able to give the Alberta Aurora Chasers some concrete answers.

"As the satellite flew straight though Steve, data from the electric field instrument showed very clear changes," Professor Donovan said in a press release.

"The temperature 300 km above Earth's surface jumped by 3000°C and the data revealed a 25 km-wide ribbon of gas flowing westwards at about 6 km/s compared to a speed of about 10 m/s either side of the ribbon."

In layman's terms?

It turns out that Steve is actually remarkably common, but we hadn't noticed it before. It's thanks to ground-based observations, satellites, today's explosion of access to data and an army of citizen scientists joining forces to document it.

"It is amazing how a beautiful natural phenomenon, seen by observant citizens, can trigger scientists' curiosity," added ESA Swarm mission scientist Roger Haagmans.

"The ground network and the electric and magnetic field measurements made by Swarm are great tools that can be used to better understand Steve. This is a nice example of society for science."

Although "Steve" turned out to be just another run-of-the-mill aurora, he will always have a special place in our hearts.

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