Amateur Canadian Astronomers Discover New Aurora by Accident

It's called STEVE and it's much different than the northern lights.

The northern lights (aka aurora borealis) are a natural wonder of this world. The celestial phenomena of streaking lights in the northern hemisphere is caused by a combination of solar winds, magnetic fields and electrical currents. It is so wondrous that there are groups of aurora chasers who travel and spend evenings outdoors just to document them.

According to an article in last month’s issue of Science Advances, a group of amateur aurora chasers inadvertently discovered a new aurora previously unknown to astronomers. The new aurora is referred to as Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement (or STEVE for short).

As The Atlantic noted about STEVE, “The newly described phenomenon appears as a narrow, glowing ribbon of lavender and emerald, emblazoned in the sky from east to west.”

STEVE appears as an arc much closer to the equator than aurora borealis and originates at a point twice as high in the sky. This gives it a very distinct difference from aurora borealis.

The Atlantic gives some backstory on STEVE’s discovery, which was done so by members of a Facebook group called Alberta Aurora Chasers. The documentation of STEVE goes back to 2010, but it was unknown to the scientific community until a project called Aurorasaurus connected with the Alberta Aurora Chasers.

Chris Ratzlaff, one of the admins of the Facebook group, went out looking for aurora borealis one evening four years ago and came away with shots of a purple streak of light. He shared the photo with the Facebook group and others admitted to seeing the phenomena.

STEVE. Photo: Courtesy of Elfie Hall/Wikimedia Commons

They initially thought it was a proton arc until the people behind Aurorasaurus tapped the group for their geo-tagging and cataloging of aurora sightings. It eventually led to the group sharing what they thought was a proton arc with the scientists at Aurorasaurus. It was eventually discovered that it was not in fact a proton arc, but a new type of aurora.

And it was Ratzlaff, who is a software developer by day, who named the aurora STEVE after the 2006 animated movie “Over The Hedge” in which one of the characters gives the name Steve to something unknown.

“I’ve never seen something this new discovered by citizen scientists in the aurora before,” professor of physics at UCLA Lawrence Lyons told The Atlantic.

“Finding something you can identify as a new structure in the aurora is relatively unusual. The last major thing was poleward boundary intensification, and you can find that name used back over 20 years ago.”

It just goes to show that there is always the possibility for discovering more than you expected when going out and enjoying the beautiful things that nature has to offer.

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