The mysterious purple ribbon in the sky that's confusing scientists

The unusual sky phenomenon Steve isn't created by particle precipitation but something much more surprising, a new study finds.

Bonnie Burton
Journalist Bonnie Burton writes about movies, TV shows, comics, science and robots. She is the author of the books Live or Die: Survival Hacks, Wizarding World: Movie Magic Amazing Artifacts, The Star Wars Craft Book, Girls Against Girls, Draw Star Wars, Planets in Peril and more! E-mail Bonnie.
Bonnie Burton
2 min read

Look up at the Arctic night sky and you might spot it: a beautiful purple ribbon of mysterious lights floating overhead. Locals call it Steve. The brilliantly colored phenomenon can be spotted in Calgary, Canada, 280 miles (450 kilometers) above Earth's surface.

Canada-based photographer Chris Ratzlaff is thought to be behind the Steve nickname, borrowing from the 2006 animated film Over the Hedge, in which characters refer to "the unknown" as "Steve." 

NASA scientists are also getting in on the act, claiming "Steve" can also stand for "Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement."

But a new study has confirmed that Steve's origins are more unusual than previously suspected.

Steve looks similar to an aurora -- better known as the Northern Lights -- a colorful light display in the Earth's sky, spotted in high-latitude regions like the Arctic and Antarctic.

An aurora is created by charged particles produced and discharged by the sun during a solar flare. The particles crash into the atoms and molecules in the Earth's atmosphere, resulting in photons (tiny bursts of light) which form the colorful aurora.

However, a new study published Monday in Geophysical Research Letters suggests that Steve could be the result of a different process.

The study, headed by University of Calgary astronomer Bea Gallardo-Lacourt, uses data taken from a 2008 spotting of Steve by NASA's THEMIS mission (called All‐Sky Imagers) and NOAA's Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellite (NOAA-17).

The study states there was no indication for any high-energy precipitation observed during the 2008 sighting of Steve and that the unusual occurrence "could be generated by a new and fundamentally different mechanism in the ionosphere".

"Probably the most important question to answer now is: if Steve is not produced by precipitating particles (like aurora), how is the structure being created?" Gallardo-Lacourt told Motherboard on Tuesday. "To answer this we need simulations (modeling the physics involved) that could help us understand all the dynamics that are playing a role."

While a flux of lower-energy particles were observed, that still doesn't scientifically explain the origins of Steve's dazzling colors in the sky. Hopefully, Gallardo-Lacourt and her fellow scientists will continue to decipher Steve's secrets with further research.

That's where you can help. Aurorasaurus, funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation, is looking to crowdsource an answer to the Steve phenomenon. They want your photos and data about Steve, in order to learn more about the mystery.

You can submit your photos of Steve to Aurorasaurus.org.

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