March 25, 2018: Last night, something happened at the edge of space over Alaska. More than 200 km above Anchorage, a hot ribbon of ionized gas sliced through Earth’s magnetosphere, creating a luminous arc that rivaled the Moon in brightness. Sanjana Greenhill witnessed the apparition:
“We noticed this perfect arc developing across the sky,” says Greenhill. “It didn’t seem like the aurora since it wasn’t moving much. The arc got brighter and then faded and then got brighter again. And then it dawned on me, this is STEVE!”
STEVE is an aurora-like phenomenon that researchers are only beginning to understand. For many years, northern sky watchers reported the form occasionally dancing alongside auroras. It was widely called a “proton arc” until researchers pointed out that protons had nothing to do with it. So members of the Alberta Aurora Chasers group gave it a new name: “Steve” (since upgraded to STEVE, an acronym for ‘Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement’).
The first clues to the nature of STEVE came in 2016 when one of the European Space Agency’s Swarm satellites encountered the phenomenon. “As the satellite flew straight though ‘Steve,’ the temperature jumped by 3000°C and the data revealed a 25 km-wide ribbon of gas flowing westwards at about 6 km/s (13,000 mph),” reports Eric Donovan from the University of Calgary.
Donovan and a team of colleagues led by Elizabeth MacDonald of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center have just published a paper on STEVE. In it, they confirm that STEVE is distinct from ordinary auroras, usually forming to the south of active Northern Lights. The mauve and purple colored arcs, they say, are related to supersonic rivers of gas called “subauroral ion drifts” (SAIDs), which flow through Earth’s magnetic field. Earth-orbiting satelites have tracked thousands of SAIDs: they tend to appear near latitude +60 degrees, and occur more frequently during spring and fall than summer and winter.
This last point means that now is the season for STEVE. The onset of northern spring seems to lure the arc out of winter hiding.
“I saw STEVE for the first time on March 18th,” reports Giuseppe Petricca , who took this sequence of pictures from the Isle of Lewis in Scotland:
“It was an ever-changing tornado, with violet tones, always in movement, always with different shapes,” he says. “Another wonder of Nature!”
The mystery of STEVE is far from solved. Researchers still don’t understand why STEVE is purple–or for that matter why the underlying rivers of gas should glow at all. “Further spectral analysis and modeling are needed,” say MacDonald et al.
In other words, keep an eye out for STEVE.