Lonely Planet Writer

Amateur stargazers discovered a new Northern Light and named it.... Steve

A university professor has praised the power of “citizen scientists” in discovering and helping to identify a streak of purple light in the Aurora Borealis, saying that it is a great example of society for science. The Alberta Aurora Chasers in Alberta capture and share images of the Northern Lights, and they recently came across this ribbon of purple light above Canada and created a Facebook album of images of it.

The arc of purple light in the Northern Lights that has been named Steve, Image: Christoph Schaarschmidt‎ Photography
The arc of purple light in the Northern Lights that has been named Steve, Image: Christoph Schaarschmidt‎ Photography

They presumed the light was a proton arc and named it “Steve.” However, when Professor Eric Donovan of the University of Calgary saw the photos, he knew that Steve was something else. The European Space Agency sent its Swarm magnetic field mission satellite into the atmosphere to examine the phenomenon.

“As the satellite flew straight though Steve, data from the electric field instrument showed very clear changes,” Professor Donovan explained in a statement. “The temperature 300km 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 transpires that Steve is actually a remarkably common occurrence, but just hadn’t been noticed until the Alberta Aurora Chasers got on the case. Professor Donovan said that ground-based observations, satellites, today’s explosion of access to data and an army of citizen scientists joining forces will allow scientists us to help resolve unanswered questions about Steve and other aurora-related phenomena. 

He explained that while the shimmering, eerie, light displays of auroras are beautiful and captivating, they are also a visual reminder that earth is connected electrically to the sun. A better understanding of the aurora helps to understand more about the relationship between earth’s magnetic field and the charged atomic particles streaming from the sun as the solar wind. And this understanding is greatly assisted by images taken by amateur stargazers. “It is amazing how a beautiful natural phenomenon seen by observant citizens can trigger scientists’ curiosity,” said ESA’s Swarm mission scientist, Roger Haagmans.