Amateur sky-watchers in Canada, in conjunction with NASA scientists, have made a startling discovery after years of looking up at the stars: a new type of aurora.
They named it STEVE, an acronym for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.
While the new aurora may appear similar to the famous northern lights (or aurora borealis), it’s a phenomenon previously unknown to science. Rather than the traditional greens and blue hues of other auroras, Steve appears to the human eye as purplish, and is surrounded by a green, fence-like structure.
The aurora is a narrow band of light, and it appears much closer to the equator than the northern lights – welcome news for people who want to see the phenomenon but aren’t able to make a trip to the Arctic circle.
It’s fleeting, though – sightings last between 20 minutes and an hour, according to NASA.
The strange lights were first reported by citizen scientists in Southern Canada in 2015. The amateurs formed a group, and started working with a team of aurora researchers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center called Aurorasaurus.
The amateur scientists shared their images of the mysterious lights with NASA to figure out their source, and the collaboration led them to publish the findings in the journal Science Advances on Tuesday.
Check out some beautiful images of the aurora below:
After comparing the images the amateurs submitted with satellite data, the NASA researchers found they were looking at a whole new type of aurora.
Auroras are created when charged particles emanating from the sun interact with our planet’s magnetic field, resulting in brilliant displays of green, blue, and red light.
Steve, however, travels on a different magnetic field than other auroras, which is why it’s spotted at lower latitudes.
Steve also emanates from a spot twice as high in the sky as the northern lights.
Scientists classified Steve as a sub auroral ion drift, or SAID. Steve is the first example of a SAID that’s accompanied by a visual display.
The discovery gave scientists a unique window into how the magnetic fields surrounding Earth interact with charged particles in space, according to NASA.
This video from NASA shows how Steve is formed:
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