Getting to experience the wonder and beauty that is the aurora borealis is a truly unforgettable event. Each encounter is unique in the way the swirls of green and purple swell and fade making way for the next wave of splendor. The next time you witness the dance of charged ions, you could be helping NASA with the latest discovered phenomena, STEVE.
Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement, or STEVE, is made up of a fast-moving stream of extremely hot particles called a ‘sub auroral ion drift’ or SAID. Scientists have studied SAIDs since the 1970s but didn’t know of any companion visual effects.
[REWIND: NASA Needs Your Photos Of Clouds]
The new type of Aurora was discovered by a collection of citizen scientists in Canada they affectionately named “Steve.” Unlike other types of auroras, the phenomenon appears as a narrow, glowing ribbon with a distinct purple ribbon of light with green “picket fence” accents that dances in the sky from east to west.
Notanee Bourassa, one such citizen scientist, knew that what he saw in the night sky was not normal. Bourassa often photographs the night sky with is Nikon D810 until the early hours of the morning. When a thin purple ribbon of light appeared and started glowing is nearly 30 years of stargazing experience told him it wasn’t an Aurora, it was something else.
From 2015 to 2016 people, like Bourassa, have shared 30 reports of these oddly hued lights in online forums and with a team of scientists that run a project called Aurorasaurus.
Led by Liz MacDonald, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Aurorasaurus is a NASA funded citizen science project that tracks the aurora borealis through user-submitted reports.
Steve is an important discovery might be the only visual clue that exists to show a chemical or physical connection between the higher latitude auroral zone and lower latitude sub auroral zone, where most auroras appear
“STEVE can help us understand how the chemical and physical processes in Earth’s upper atmosphere can sometimes have noticeable local effects in lower parts of Earth’s atmosphere,” said MacDonald. “This provides good insight into how Earth’s system works as a whole.”
NASA wants your help photographing new celestial phenomenon that is getting the attention of scientists, photographers, and astronauts alike.
Below are tips from NASA to help find STEVE and what they have learned so far.
- STEVE appears closer to the equator than where normal — often green — auroras appear. It appears approximately 5-10 degrees farther south in the Northern Hemisphere. This means it could appear overhead at latitudes similar to Calgary, Canada.
- The phenomenon has been reported from the United Kingdom, Canada, Alaska, northern U.S. states and New Zealand.
- STEVE is a very narrow arc, aligned east-west, and extends for hundreds or thousands of miles.
- STEVE mostly emits light in purple hues.
- Sometimes the phenomenon is accompanied by a rapidly evolving green picket fence structure that is short-lived.
- STEVE can last 20 minutes to an hour.
- STEVE has only been spotted so far in the presence of an aurora (but auroras often occur without STEVE). Scientists are investigating to learn more about how the two phenomena are connected.
- STEVE may only appear in certain seasons. It was not observed from October 2016 to February 2017. It also wasn’t seen from October 2017 to February 2018.
Despite the ordinary name, Steve is an extraordinary discovery in showing how Earth’s magnetic fields behave. If you live in an area where you may see STEVE or an Aurora, submit your pictures and reports to Aurorasaurus through aurorasaurus.org or the free iOS and Android mobile apps.