March 15, 2018 5:24 pm
Updated: March 19, 2018 11:33 am

‘Aurora Steve’: New northern lights discovered by Canadian amateur scientists

WATCH: Along with the Big Dipper and Orion’s Belt, we can now add Steve to the list of cool things to look for in the night sky. As Gil Tucker shows us, it’s bringing an amateur astronomer from Calgary some worldwide recognition.


The glowing ribbon of purple — and sometimes green — light that runs east-west in the night sky has been observed and photographed by aurora borealis chasers for years.

A photographer in Calgary named it Steve.

“We often see Steve from Calgary, pretty much straight up,” citizen scientist Chris Ratzlaff said.

“I saw this pink streak through the sky,” he said. “It was very thin and narrow. My first thought was that it was an airplane.”

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New research published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances suggests the narrow visible structure, which is distinct from traditional aurora, was largely undocumented in scientific literature.

Little was known about how it formed.

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Early research by scientists at NASA and various universities suggests it’s a powerful current created by charged particles in the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Ratzlaff called it a “great honour” to be recognized for his part in studying Steve.

“I’ve been looking up at the sky my entire life,” he said. “From what I’ve heard there’ve been no new discoveries about aurora for the past 20 years, so this is pretty exciting.”

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Ratzlaff said people have seen Steve all over the world. The best time to see it is late at night on an aurora evening, he said, adding it will be a blurry pink streak that will run east to west.

Scientists have kept the name Steve — only now it stands for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement (STEVE) — and will continue to research the phenomenon.

Eric Donovan from the University of Calgary school of astronomy said the discovery made by Ratzlaff and other members of the Alberta Aurora Chasers group is “hugely important.”

“[We] absolutely couldn’t have done it without them,” he said. “Not a chance in the world.”

© 2018 The Canadian Press, Global News

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