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Researchers Discover Dazzling New Aurora, Decide to Call It 'Steve'

An aurora borealis who is also very beautiful but is not Steve (who is purple).
An aurora borealis who is also very beautiful but is not Steve (who is purple).
Photo: AP

If you’re ever in southern Canada and witness shimmering strands of transfixing purple light strung about the night sky, there’s a name for what you’re experiencing, and it’s “Steve.”


“Steve” is actually an acronym, for “Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement,” a phenomenon that a research paper published on Wednesday in Science Advances suggests is a new type of aurora. As the New York Times reported in August, before “Steve” was transfigured into an acronym, it was just a placeholder name for an odd bit of light that observers could not yet explain, though they suspected it was some fragment of an aurora.

Elizabeth MacDonald, a space physicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland who helmed the paper’s research team, said of the discovery process, “Dedicated aurora chasers, especially from Alberta, Canada, were out in the middle of the night, looking north and taking beautiful photos. Then farther south they happened to see a faint narrow purple arc as well.”


According to the Times, the peer-reviewed paper understands Steve to be similar to a phenomenon known as “sub-auroral ion drift” (S.A.I.D.), which, like northern lights, are produced by interactions between charged solar particles and our planet’s magnetosphere. MacDonald told the Times that S.A.I.D. is “something that we know that’s actually ben studied for 40 years, but they have never been seen to have this optical component.”

Chris Ratzlaff, a co-author of the Science Advances report, also noted Steve’s unique and striking visual force, telling the Times, “S.A.I.D.’s don’t really have any visual features, so the relationship between them and something as visually stunning as Steve is super fascinating.”

Here’s a flattering picture of my boyfriend, Steve.

contributing writer, nights

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