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‘Steve,’ the aurora-like mystery scientists are starting to unravel

The majestic aurora-like phenomenon, “Steve,” is now the official abbreviation, STEVE, it shines with the Milky way about Childs Lake, Manitoba in Canada.

(Krista Trinder)

New work contributes to the codification of the cause and properties of “Steve” is an aurora-like phenomenon documented by the citizen scientists as the streaks in the sky in the west of Canada.

If a new paper release today (14 March), the phenomenon is called STEVE, a backronym that corresponds to the name originally given by aurora watchers. (STEVE is an abbreviation for “Strong Thermal Emission Speed Improvement.”) According to the new work, the characteristic ribbon of purple light with green accents, which may occur at lower latitudes than normal, the aurora’s do — gives scientists a glimpse into the interactions of the magnetic field of the Earth and the upper layers of the atmosphere.

“It is exciting because this might be a sort of aurora that more people can see it than others, because they are, when they see, it shows more populated areas, which is further south,” Elizabeth MacDonald, a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and lead author of the new work, told Space.com. And scientific, “it is an aspect related to [aurora’ s] which is further south than we had ever recognized … It tells us that the processes of the creation of the aurora penetrate all the way to the inner magnetosphere, so that is a new aspect of it.” [Amazing auroras: Photographs of the Earth’s northern lights]

Researchers first became aware of STEVE, after members of a Facebook group called the Alberta Aurora Chasers (which refers to the province in the west of Canada) began with the posting of photos of unusual purple-green streaks oriented almost vertically in the air. Scientist staff coordinated with the aurora chasers to combine with the dates and times of the phenomenon at the latest with the data of the European Space Agency’s Swarm satellites, which precisely measure variations in the magnetic field of the Earth, to work out which conditions caused the phenomenon.

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The better known auroras — also referred to as the northern and southern lights, form when the Earth’s magnetic field guides charged particles driven by the sun around the earth, and in the direction of the upper layers of the atmosphere at the poles. These solar particles hit the neutral particles in the upper layers of the atmosphere, producing light and colour, visible in the night sky.

STEVE, on the other hand, seems to be the form a different way.

“There is an electric field in the regions in which the points poleward, and a magnetic field that points down, and the two together make this strong drift to the west,” MacDonald said. The flow in the ionosphere of the Earth, charged solar particles to the west, where the neutral particles along the way and warm up, producing up-the reach of the streaks of light moving from the west.

STEVE is the first visible indicator of that ion drift, which the researchers had explored using the satellite for about 40 years, she added.

Because the phenomenon occurred outside of the normal geographic range for frequent auroras, citizen scientists played an important role in the understanding of STEVE, MacDonald said. It is in the farthest reaches of specific scientific cameras, and this is on different wavelengths from the usual aurora, so that these cameras can not be drawn up document. And the improvement in the camera technology that is available to the public means these data are becoming increasingly valuable for scientists is the understanding of the aurora’s in general. (Plus, crowdsourcing platforms such as Aurorasaurus, which MacDonald founded, help the aggregation of the observations to help predict and analyze.)

Scientists understand much about the aurora’s, but not everything, “there is the discovery,” MacDonald said. “And there is the less exciting aspect of citizen science observations,” which is just as scientifically valuable. “All of these observations in the total help us to build better models of aurorae,” she added. “That is useful for people who want to see it, and it is also useful for people who are concerned about the effects of space weather and currents in the upper layers of the atmosphere on communications and things like that.”

It is difficult to provide a general overview of the aurora’s with the current slate of satellites, MacDonald said, that either can’t see an entire hemisphere or not pay attention at any place often enough when they get a job — once every 90 minutes — to keep track of how aurora’ s development in the short term. People on the ground can provide a more nuanced picture.

“With this kind of projects, we can get more people than we think, than they would have thought — that, in fact, caught in a scientifically valuable observation,” she said. “And it is not scary, it’s STEVE.”

The new work is detailed today (14 March) in the journal Science Advances.

Original article on Space.com.

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