aurora borealis

Posted by Ellen

The night owls who officially discovered–and named–Steve are the members of a Facebook group called Alberta Aurora Chasers. They are folks who like to stay up late and drive out to remote pastures and mountain valleys, even when the winter nights are insanely cold, which they often are in the prairies and Rockies of western Canada–all in hopes of a chance to enjoy big, unpolluted views of shimmery aurora borealis lights in the northern sky.

Steve is the name the aurora chasers borrowed from the children's movie Over the Hedge and applied to a particular, somewhat unusual aurora-like phenomenon, streaks of purple light that ripple vertically from the horizon instead of dancing horizontally along it like a normal, well-behaved, aurora. Normal auroras are produced when electrons thrown off by the sun approach earth, where they are pulled by our magnetic field toward the north and south poles. As they collide with gas molecules in the upper atmosphere, they can put on a bright light show.

Steve, scientists thought at first, could be generated by protons instead of electrons crashing into our atmosphere. But a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Calgary, Eric Donovan, suspected otherwise; proton collisions, he thought, wouldn't give off much visible light for aurora chasers to photograph and enjoy.

In 2016, Donovan was able to track down something he thought might be an instance of Steve that was picked up by a satellite flying right overhead in Alberta. So he went on Facebook and asked the Alberta Aurora Chasers if they'd seen anything that night, at that location.

They had noticed it and photographed it. Donovan correlated their photos with the satellite data and concluded that Steve wasn't technically an aurora at all; it was a ribbon of extremely hot gas flying through space, more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than its surroundings.

Donovan believes the Steve discovery demonstrates the potential of "citizen scientists" to leverage data from satellites and other instruments in our brave new world. Of course, it also demonstrates what happens, à la Boaty McBoatface, when digital anybodies are charged with coming up with names for stuff.