Northern Lights enthusiasts see a strange new light in the sky and decide to call it 'Steve'

A group of aurora enthusiasts have found a strange purple ribbon of light while chasing the Northern Lights and decided to call it, er, “Steve”.

Eric Donovan from the University of Calgary in Canada saw photos of this mysterious streak of light on a Facebook group called Alberta Aurora Chasers.

The group initially called this phenomenon a “proton arc” but Donovan was convinced that wasn’t the case because he knew proton auroras were not visible.

He and his colleagues looked through satellite data from the Swarm mission (the European Space Agency’s mission to study Earth’s magnetic fields) and decided that it was possibly a hot ribbon of gas flowing in the upper atmosphere.

Steve
Steve (Dave Markel Photography/ESA)

The Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights, form when charged particles emitted from the Sun during a solar flare pass through the Earth’s magnetic shield and clash with the atoms in our atmosphere.

These collisions result in bursts of light which make up the Northern Lights.

Donovan said: “As the satellite flew straight though Steve, data from the electric field instrument showed very clear changes.

“The temperature 300 km above Earth’s surface jumped by 3,000°C and the data revealed a 25km-wide ribbon of gas flowing westwards at about 6km/s compared to a speed of about 10 m/s either side of the ribbon.

Swarm satellite.
Swarm satellite (ESA/AOES Medialab)

“It turns out that Steve is actually remarkably common, but we hadn’t noticed it before. It’s thanks to ground-based observations, satellites, today’s explosion of access to data and an army of citizen scientists joining forces to document it.

“Swarm allows us to measure it and I’m sure will continue to help resolve some unanswered questions.”

The group reportedly decided to call it Steve as a nod to Over the Hedge – a 2006 children’s animation film where the characters give the name to a creature they have not seen before.

Although it’s not a patch on Boaty McBoatface.

 

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