Meet Steve, no he’s not some guy I know, it is a newly discovered atmospheric phenomenon that is so beautifully strange that it still doesn’t have any formal scientific name or description, hence the placeholder name! And if you happen to be in Canada on a clear night, just gaze up in the sky and may be you’ll get to see (meet) ‘Steve’ which is a strip of light stretching from East to West.
So what really is Steve? Is it a fickle piece of Aurora borealis aka the northern lights? Or a strip of Proton Arora? Or a mere plane contrail? Or a comet’s trail? Well actually, it is none of these and we don’t know what it is. Scientists are working on finding out what exactly they are dealing with or rather metaphorically, they are looking for the identity of Steve! Regardless of what Steve is, isn’t it just absolutely magnificent! One can simply not take their eyes off this shiny bright coloured strip of light stretching throughout the sky. Here are some hand-picked photographs of Steve.
Image Source: Shirley Davis/Alberta Aurora Chasers
Image Source: Vanexus Photography/Alberta Aurora Chasers
Image Source: Cynthia Salgado/Alberta Aurora Chasers
Image Source: Melanie Cervo/Alberta Aurora Chasers
Image Source: Sherri Grant/Alberta Aurora Chasers
Image Source: Tim Viers/Alberta Aurora Chasers
Here’s the story of pretty Steve. It all started with a group of amateur Canadian photographers who were enthusiastic about finding the most stunning pictures of aurora borealis or northern lights. They created a Facebook group called Alberta Aurora Chasers to share information about the best and brightest displays. That is when the majestic strip came into attention and they eventually named it ‘Steve’ after a scene in ‘Over the Hedge’ where a character arbitrarily conjures up the name Steve to describe an object he’s not sure about.
Currently there are more than 70 stunning pictures of Steve photographed from around the world. Photographs of the phenomenon, most of which show Steve as a glowing ribbon of neon light from above Canada to far beyond but to naked eye, Steve doesn’t look like this; it usually appears as a dainty wisp of white light which is paler than the northern lights. But when looked through camera lenses with slow shutter speed, that is when the ethereal magic happens and Steve could be seen in its glorious pink, purple and green form and looked like Steve was self-illuminating.
Sir Eric Donovan from the University of Calgary was the first scientist who actually looked into Steve and have been searching for it ever since and recognized that the beautifully mysterious light arch wasn’t a proton aurora. Prof. Donovan managed to contact with ESA’s Swarm mission which is a constellation of satellites tasked to study Earth’s magnetic fields and the satellites flew straight into Steve to reveal new data.
The temperature 300 km above Earth’s surface 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. 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.
But that not all about Steve because the question that why are those gases up there at the first place still remains unanswered. But keep gazing at the stunning pictures of Steve because I can’t keep looking at it.