Photo: Beth Ruggiero-York/Shutterstock

There's a New Epicly Beautiful Aurora, and Its Name Is Steve

by Henry Miller Mar 16, 2018

If you have ever witnessed an Aurora Borealis, you probably didn’t take a deep breath while admiring one of the great wonders of our universe and think to yourself, “now that’s a Steve.”

Yet, that is what amateur Canadian scientists decided to call a new kind of Aurora in a paper that was published on Wednesday.

Their new discovery started about four years ago when Chris Ratzlaff (“aurora chaser” and co-author of the research paper) offered to show Eric Donovan (an associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Calgary) pictures of what Ratzlaff called a “proton aurora” after a guest lecture in 2014.

But Donovan was skeptical that the aurora was what the scientists thought it was — proton auroras can’t be seen by the naked eye and the photographers wouldn’t be able to snap a picture of it. “There is such a thing as proton aurora, but it’s always subvisual so they wouldn’t even know to point a camera to take a picture of it,” said Donovan.

Then Ratzlaff showed the professor something he had never seen before — a purple aurora that arced over the plains of Alberta in a shimmering band.

Donovan told Ratzlaff that this was a new discovery and that they needed to come up with a name for it. Ratzlaff came up with “Steve.”

Elizabeth Macdonald, a space physicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who led the research team, classified Steve as a type of “subaural ion drift”, (the flow of energetic charged particles). But the fact that you can see Steve, like you can for the aurora borealis (Northern Lights) makes it a truly unique discovery.

While “Steve” was intended as a placeholder name, the authors decided to stick with it, making an acronym after the fact to fit the nickname: “Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.”

So, if you ever find yourself in Alberta at night and you spot a little strip of purple sky shimmering by itself, you can now shout, “Hi Steve!” and be scientifically accurate.

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