Help Wanted: NASA Is Looking For Snapshots Of ‘STEVE,’ The Unusual Aurora-Like Northern Lights

Team up with NASA to learn more about the peculiar “ribbon of purple light” discovered last year by amateur astronomers.

STEVE, the mysterious aurora-like northern lights discovered last year, seen as a thin purple ribbon of light.
Megan Hoffman / NASA

Team up with NASA to learn more about the peculiar “ribbon of purple light” discovered last year by amateur astronomers.

Another day, another chance for citizen scientists to make their marks, as they have done on numerous occasions (the latest of which being this one). A new opportunity for sky watchers to get involved in scientific research comes from NASA and Aurorasaurus, in the form of an invitation to reach for their cameras.

The NASA-funded citizen science project Aurorasaurus is inviting the public to help unravel the mystery of the newly discovered celestial phenomenon called STEVE, the U.S. space agency announced.

To that effect, citizens with a knack for science are asked to grab their cameras and try to capture any snapshots of the perplexing northern lights, provided they live in an area where STEVE can be spotted.

“Whether you’re an astronaut, a scientist, or an intrepid sky gazer, you can help scientists learn more about STEVE’s appearance, lifecycle and implications,” shows the NASA news release.

People all over the world can pitch in and submit photos of STEVE — as well as reports on where they’ve seen these aurora-like northern lights (or any type of aurora, for that matter) — on the Aurorasaurus website or via the Aurorasaurus free mobile app.

What Is ‘Steve’ And How It Got Its Name

The world became acquainted with STEVE in April 2017, when the eerie and captivating northern lights were first observed in Canada. The celestial phenomenon, which appeared as a purple streak of light in the night sky, was initially spotted by a group of amateur astronomers, members of a Facebook group called the Alberta Aurora Chasers.

It was these aurora borealis enthusiasts that came up with the playful “Steve” moniker. According to ABC News, which reported last year on the discovery, the name was chosen in homage of the animated movie Over the Hedge, where the characters stumble upon an unknown object and decide to dub it “Steve” in order to make it more familiar.

At the time, the European Space Agency (ESA) described STEVE as a “strange ribbon of purple light” and used its Swarm satellite to gather more insight on the beautiful light show.

The amateur astronomers initially believed STEVE was a “proton arc” (or a proton aurora), and even found a scientific denomination to go with the STEVE acronym: Sudden Thermal Emission from Velocity Enhancement.

However, the Swarm observations revealed the phenomenon was not an aurora, but rather a hot stream of fast-flowing gas in the higher reaches of the atmosphere, some 300 kilometers (about 190 miles) above the Earth’s surface.

The satellite data revealed that the gas stream was 25 kilometers wide (or about 15.5 miles in diameter) and was remarkably hotter on the inside than on the outside. In fact, STEVE’s core temperature was found to be 3,000 degrees Celsius (or about 5,400 Fahrenheit) higher than its peripheral temperature, showed ESA.

The first photos of STEVE, posted on social media by the Alberta Aurora Chasers, were then investigated by Prof. Eric Donovan from the University of Calgary, in Alberta, Canada. He later teamed up with Elizabeth MacDonald, leader of the Aurorasaurus project and researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, to identify the nature of this phenomenon.

The two have recently published a study that builds on the Swarm data and amateur photographs of STEVE — an acronym which they suggest should stand for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.

Their paper, featured on March 14 in the journal Science Advances, classifies the purple streak of light as a “subauroral” structure generated by the interaction of charged solar particles and Earth’s magnetic field lines.

In the video below, MacDonald explains that STEVE is “mostly a very narrow purple arc” that sometimes exhibits “little green features,” which, as NASA points out, resemble a “picket fence structure that waves.”

These physical features separate STEVE from typical auroras, which usually shine in green, blue and red hues. Moreover, a regular aurora is oval in shape and remains visible for hours, while STEVE “is a line with a beginning and end” and never persists more than one hour (its shortest appearance lasted a brief 20 minutes).

“Scientists have now learned, despite its ordinary name, that STEVE may be an extraordinary puzzle piece in painting a better picture of how Earth’s magnetic fields function and interact with charged particles in space,” shows a separate NASA news release detailing the study’s conclusions.

How And Where To Spot ‘Steve:’ Tips For Sky Gazers

While Swarm was able to gather information on STEVE’s diameter, speed, and temperature, the satellite is not equipped with an imager to photograph the bizarre light show. This is where sky watchers come in, and why their snapshots are so valuable to better understanding this phenomenon.

NASA indicated that these unusual northern lights are likely to be spotted in the northern U.S. states, as well as the United Kingdom, Canada, Alaska, and New Zealand — which is where the previous sightings have occurred.

The space agency advises sky gazers on the lookout for STEVE to be mindful of the season since the phenomenon appears to be visible only during certain times of the year. To the point, NASA mentions the purple lights went undetected from October 2016 to February 2017, as well as during the October 2017-February 2018 timeframe.

However, according to Space.com, which cites MacDonald, STEVE was spotted again merely a week ago, on the night of March 10.

Unlike typical auroras, this narrow arc running east-west across hundreds or thousands of miles usually pops up approximately 5-10 degrees farther south in the Northern Hemisphere, and therefore stands a good chance of being seen at latitudes similar to Calgary, Canada.

Sky gazers trying to capture a glimpse of STEVE are informed the purple lights usually appear in the presence of an aurora and occasionally sport “rapidly evolving” green picket-fence features, that fade away shortly after.

Even people who only get a glimpse of an aurora borealis are urged to send in their input, notes the news release. Considering that in the past STEVE has always been accompanied by an aurora borealis, researchers are looking to uncover the correlation between the two phenomena.