Steve caught on camera in the sky above a house
A Facebook group of northern lights enthusiasts in Alberta kept noticing a light stretching through the night sky in a line. With good cameras and some imaging know-how, they discovered the light could be enhanced to expose dreamlike purples and greens. Unsure of what to call the phenomena, they decided to name it Steve.
“The meaningless of the name is actually quite valuable from a scientific perspective,” Chris Ratzlaff, an admin for the Alberta Aurora Chasers group said.
In the past, a common name for the phenomena was a proton arc. But this changed in January of 2016, after members of the group went to a presentation by aurora experts Eric Donovan, of the University of Calgary, and Elizabeth MacDonald, of NASA.
Christoph Schaarschmidt/Alberta Aurora chasersSteve above Cascade Pond, Alberta.
After the presentation, the Aurora chasers went for drinks with the experts and showed them pictures of the so-called proton arcs. Ratzlaff says that Donovan looked at them and said, “that’s not a proton arc, it wouldn’t even be possible to see a proton arc.”
Naturally, they asked him, “Well, what is it?”
His reply: “I have no idea.”
The inspiration for the name Steve is from the animated movie Over the Hedge. The animal characters aren’t sure what to call the intimidating hedge, so one of them suggests Steve because, “It’s a pretty name.”
The term caught on pretty quickly. “It’s a little bit of a lark, but it’s worked really well for our community,” said Ratzlaff. The Alberta Aurora Chasers Facebook page functions as a gathering point for discussion and photos of the Auroras spotted from the province. It now has dozens of posts and a photo gallery dedicated to Steve.
Steve traverses the night sky.
While the interest in Steve has taken off among the aurora hunting community, the phenomena has also become a topic of research in the scientific community. After drinks with the Aurora Chasers, Donovan, MacDonald and some other researchers started looking for an explanation.
According to Aurorasaurus, a site that gives live updates on aurora sightings about the world, Steve occurs about 10-20 degrees south of the aurora borealis and travels from east to west.
To get more information, Donovan paired an overpass of a satellite from the European Space Agency (ESA) with a ground sighting of Steve. The ESA reported that as the satellite flew through Steve, the temperature “jumped by 3000°C and the data revealed a 25 km-wide ribbon of gas flowing westwards at about 6 km/s compared to a speed of about 10 m/s either side of the ribbon.”
This discovery has some people attributing a technical name to Steve to lend it some scientific credibility. A post on Aurorasaurus says that “space scientists from NASA, the University of Calgary and other places are already trying to make Steve an acronym meaning ‘Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.’”
For the Alberta Aurora Chasers, the discovery and attention from Steve has been a boon for their group. On Tuesday, Ratzlaff posted that more than 600 people had joined the group in the past 48 hours, “thanks, in no small part, to global interest in Steve’s story.”
And this uptick in activity will help the group fulfill its goal, which Ratzlaff says is simply “to help people see the northern lights.”
Catalin Tapardel/Alberta Aurora ChasersSteve above Kakwa, Alberta.