Up in the sky, look: It's a bird. It's a plane. It's ... Steve?
Such is the name being given to a newly discovered night sky phenomenon, and Alberta citizen photographers are being given credit for the discovery.
In photos, "Steve" shows up as a bright purple-pink streak across the sky — a light that would often appear in photos posted to the Alberta Aurora Chasers Facebook page.
A data-gathering satellite that flew through Steve reported some very interesting findings. (Photo: Dave Markel Photography)
The group's photographers began to notice Steve a few years ago, administrator Chris Ratzlaff told The Huffington Post Canada, but it wasn't until a talk at the University of Calgary in 2015 that the scientific community took interest.
Ratzlaff said the group's members approached U of C physicist Eric Donovan and NASA's Elizabeth MacDonald, who works with the agency's citizen aurora project, Aurorasaurus, with some photos of Steve.
— Aurorasaurus (@TweetAurora) March 14, 2017
The group was pretty convinced they had photos of a phenomenon called a proton arc, but Donovan didn't agree.
— Chris Ratzlaff (@ratzlaff) April 24, 2017
Instead, Donovan began cross-referencing the locations and times of the photographers' photos with information collected by the European Space Agency's (ESA) Swarm mission.
He waited until one of Swarm's satellites flew directly though Steve and noted some big changes.
"The temperature 300 kilometres above Earth’s surface jumped by 3000 C and the data revealed a 25 kilometre-wide ribbon of gas flowing westwards at about 6 kilometres/second compared to a speed of about 10 metres/second either side of the ribbon," he noted in an ESA press release.
According to NASA's Aurorasaurus blog, here's what you need to know about Steve. Story continues below:
According to NASA's Aurorasaurus blog, here's what you need to know about "Steve."
Steve appears ~10-20° (in latitude) closer to the equator (south in the Northern hemisphere) than where the normal green aurora is overhead. This means it could be overhead at latitudes similar to Calgary.
Steve is a very narrow arc aligned East-West and extending for hundreds or thousands of miles.
Steve emits light in mostly purple-ish colors. It is quite faint but is usually photographed with 5-10 second exposures.
Sometimes, it is accompanied by a rapidly evolving green short-lived picket fence structure.
Steve can last 20 min or even longer.
Steve appears to have a season. For instance, it has not been observed by citizen scientists from October 2016 to February 2017.
This phenomena has been reported from the U.K., Canada, Alaska, northern U.S. states, and even New Zealand.
Donovan, however, remains coy about what causes the phenomenon — he told Gizmodo the world will have to wait for his theory, which will be published "shortly."
However, he said Steve has been hiding in plain sight for quite some time.
“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," he noted to the ESA.
As for Steve's name — it was originally given by the Alberta Aurora Chasers group, as a reference to the popular children’s movie "Over the Hedge," where one of the characters isn’t sure what he is looking at and randomly names the object Steve.
Steve is captured on July 29, 2016, near Kakwa, Alta. (Photo: Catalin Tapardel)
But now there's a push to turn the name into an acronym meaning "Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement."
As far as your chance of seeing Steve with the naked eye, Ratzlaff says it's possible but reminds casual stargazers that most photos of Steve have been heavily processed and that it doesn't usually appear so brightly to the naked eye.
To see footage of Steve in action, check out NASA's video above.