The colourful lights in the sky, that look distinctly like an aurora, were first observed by a group of amateur sky sleuths last year, sharing photographs to their Facebook page ‘Alberta Aurora Chasers’.
For the last twelve months, they had concluded that what they were witnessing in over 50 instances, in Canada, the UK, Alaska and New Zealand, was a proton arc, and decided to name it Steve.
Not, as you might expect, in homage to Professor Hawking, but instead as a tribute to 2006 children’s film ‘Over The Hedge’, where characters give the same moniker to something they have not seen before.
That was until Eric Donovan from the University of Calgary came across the photographs on social media and realised that they were actually seeing something totally new, and not a proton arc, as they are invisible.
After recruiting the help of the European Space Agency (ESA), and their very expensive electric field instruments, testing showed that Steve is actually a hot stream of fast-flowing gas in the higher reaches of the atmosphere.
As noted in the Aurorasaurus blog, Steve is 190 miles above the surface of the earth, is 3000 degrees hotter than the air around it, and flowing at 13,000 miles per hour, 600 times faster than the air on either side.
Roger Haagmans of the ESA, told Gizmodo: “It turns out that Steve is actually remarkably common, but we hadn’t noticed it before. “It’s thanks to ground-based observations, satellites, today’s explosion of access to data and an army of citizen scientists joining forces to document it.”
Despite appearances, Steve does not qualify as an aurora as normal auroras are caused by streams of charged particles at the earth’s poles, channeled down by the earth’s magnetic field, where they bash into the atmosphere.