Help NASA study ‘Steve,’ a new aurora type

The aurora structure known as “Steve” shimmers about Helena Lake Ranch in British Columbia in Canada, in this image by Andy Witteman.

(Andy Witteman – @CNLastro)

A group of citizen scientists has helped in discovering a new type of aurora the name “Steve”, and now NASA wants you to help with the shooting of the unusual phenomenon.

Members of a Facebook group known as the Alberta Aurora Chasers originally a news report about the aurora-like light show in the night sky above western Canada. Unlike other auroras, the phenomenon that scientists have turned into an acronym: Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Increase) is shown as a separate purple ribbon with the green light on “picket fence” accents. STEVE occurs at lower latitudes than most of the northern lights, according to a statement from NASA.

With the help of the European Space Agency’s Swarm magnetic field mission, the researchers were able to study STEVE in more detail, revealing new clues about the interactions of the magnetic field of the Earth and the upper layers of the atmosphere that are the cause of the phenomenon. Their findings were published yesterday (14 March) in the journal Science Advances. [Amazing auroras: Photographs of the Earth’s northern lights]

Now, a citizen science project called Aurorasaurus, which is funded by the NASA and the U.S. National Science Foundation, is looking to skywatchers’ help to learn even more about STEVE ‘ s appearance, life cycle and the implications. People from all over the world will be able to report where they have seen aurora’s, including STEVE, and post photos online or with the help of the Aurorasaurus mobile app.

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Since the discovery, STEVE has been documented in the United Kingdom, Canada, Alaska, the north of the United States and New Zealand.

To help citizens observe STEVE, NASA provides the basis skywatching tips: For starters, this phenomenon is shown between 5 and 10 degrees further to the south in the Northern Hemisphere, in comparison with other aurora’s. The ribbon of purple light is a very narrow arch that is aligned on an east-west and extends over hundreds or thousands of kilometers, according to the NASA statement.

Occasionally a fast-moving, green “picket fence” structure guides STEVE. While the green accent-lamps are of short duration, STEVE can take 20 minutes to an hour. Also, the phenomenon is described only in combination with a normal aurora — that is the reason why scientists need your help to learn more about how the two phenomena are connected with each other.

In addition, the appearance of STEVE may be limited to certain seasons. “It was not observed from October 2016 to February 2017. It also remains to be seen from October 2017 to the date, March 2018,” NASA officials said in the statement. (However, NASA ‘ s Elizabeth MacDonald, a researcher at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, told the phenomenon was just there again the night of March 10.)

Skywatchers who want to get involved will be able to report sightings of STEVE and other aurora’s with the help of Aurorasaurus.

Editor’s note: If you captured a great photo of STEVE, or any other night sky view, and would like to share it with for a story or gallery, send images and comments to managing editor Tariq Malik at

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