An aurora named Steve

A composite image show the ‘steve’ aurora and the milky way over childs lake, manitoba, canada.
A composite image show the ‘Steve’ aurora and the Milky Way over Childs Lake, Manitoba, Canada.
Krista Trinder

The image above shows a newly identified kind of aurora – lightheartedly dubbed ‘Steve’ by researchers – that has recently been explained with help from citizen scientists.

While most auroras occur in an oval shape around the poles, last for hours and appear mainly in greens, reds and blues, Steve is a purple line with a beginning and an end, sometimes accompanied by a green ‘picket fence’ pattern. Steve can also appear at lower latitudes, much further from the poles than normal auroras.

Through a combination of citizen science observations from the ground and satellite imaging from above, NASA space scientists have determined that Steve is caused by a fast-moving stream of extremely hot particles called a sub-auroral ion drift.

While the whimsical name ‘Steve’ has stuck, scientists have now dignified it with the backronym STEVE, for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.

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