Steve is the name of a newly discovered celestial phenomenon that may or may not be related to the aurora or northern lights. What’s interesting about Steve is how it was discovered and how it got its name.
Steve is now being studied by Eric Donovan, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Calgary. Last year, Donovan was at a physics talk when he noticed a large group of people that he had never met before. It turned out that they were members of a Facebook group known as the Alberta Aurora Chasers.
This group of citizen scientists and photographers had formed a space on social media to discuss and post information about auroras. One of the members claimed to have taken a picture of a proton arc or proton aurora. Knowing that the proton arc is not visible to the naked eye, Donovan finally said, “Show me the picture.”
What’s in a name?
In addition to the fact Steve was brought to the attention of researchers through citizen scientists and their use of social media, the name is obviously unique. Once Donovan told the Alberta Aurora Chasers that it was not a proton arc the unknown pillar of light needed a new name.
Chris Ratzlaff came up with “Steve” from the animated movie “Over the Hedge.” In the movie, a group of animals is scared of something unknown, but they decide that it will be far less scary if it has a name. Just as the animals did in the movie, Ratzlaff came up with the name “Steve.”
So what is Steve?
Donovan doesn’t believe that Steve is an aurora, but he notes that other scientists do. Auroras are natural light displays that appear in higher latitudes. They are caused by the solar wind, a stream of charged particles released from the sun. When the charged particles reach the upper atmosphere they are directed toward the polar regions, emitting light of varying colors.
Fascinated by this particular unknown, Donovan began studying Steve last year. Using a group of satellites run by the European Space Agency, he began to collect to data on the phenomenon … temperature, location, and velocity.
What Donovan knows right now is that Steve is a narrow channel of ionized gas caused by dynamics in the Earth’s magnetosphere. The gas is moving westward in a narrow channel at extremely high speeds — greater than 5 kilometers per second (over 11,000 mph).
While Steve is a relatively new find, Donovan believes that the phenomenon occurs about three times a month and may have been spotted by millions of people without them even knowing it.
In the coming months, Donovan hopes to publish a study that will better explain Steve.