Space news: STEVE is a phenomena completely unknown to science, says study | Science | News

The phenomenon known as STEVE is new to science (Image: Ryan Sault / Alberta Aurora Chas)

Amateur photographers have been filming STEVE, which stands for for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement, for decades.

However, the scientific community began studying it two years ago, at which point they thought it was simply an aurora, albeit one which differs significantly from those which cause the Aurora Borealis, otherwise known as the Northern Lights, at the North Pole and the Aurora Australis in the Southern Hemisphere.

A team of researchers led by Bea Gallardo-Lacourt, a space physicist at the University of Calgary in Canada, studied a STEVE event in March 2008 to see whether it was produced in the same manner, by showers of electrically charged particles rain down into Earth’s upper atmosphere.

They quickly realised that it is produced by a totally different atmospheric process than the aurora, making it an entirely new type of optical phenomenon.

For the scientists, it’s completely unknown

Space physicist Bea Gallardo-Lacourt

Ms Gallardo-Lacourt, lead author of the subsequent report published in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, said: “Our main conclusion is that STEVE is not an aurora

“So right now, we know very little about it.

“And that’s the cool thing, because this has been known by photographers for decades.

“But for the scientists, it’s completely unknown.”


The phenomenon has been reported all over the world (Image: )


Scientists only began studying STEVE two years ago (Image: Norman Siemens)

The study dubs STEVE a kind of “skyglow,” or glowing light in the night sky, which is distinct from the aurora.

The team hopes that by studying STEVE, they will be better able to better understand the upper atmosphere and the processes which generate light in the sky.

Joe Borovsky, a space physicist at the Space Science Institute in Los Alamos, New Mexico who was not involved with the new study, said: “This is really interesting because we haven’t figured it out and when you get a new problem, it’s always exciting.

“It’s like you think you know everything and it turns out you don’t.”


STEVE is visible closer to the equator than the auroras (Image: Dan Hromada)


STEVE may be the result of fast-moving ions and super-hot elections passing through the ionosphere (Image: )

Auroras are produced when electrons and protons from Earth’s magnetosphere, the region around Earth dominated by its magnetic field, rain down into the ionosphere, a region of charged particles in the upper atmosphere.

When these particles become excited, they emit light of varying colours, most often green, red and blue, giving the auroras their distinctive and mysterious glow.

Whereas auroras are visible every night if viewing conditions are right, STEVE displays are only apparent a few times per year.

The light from STEVE can also be seen closer to the equator than the aurora, which is usually on showing up closer to the equator than the aurora, which shows up at high latitudes.

The rare sight can be identified by its narrow arc, which stretches for hundreds of miles.


STEVE’s narrow arc stretches for hundreds of miles (Image: )

The phenomenon has been reported in the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Alaska, and northern US states.

Scientists have used data from satellites and images from ground-based observatories to try to understand what was going on.

The most recent study’s results suggest STEVE is an entirely new phenomenon distinct from typical auroras.

The first scientific investigations, also spearheaded by Ms Gallardo-Lacourt, found a stream of fast-moving ions and super-hot electrons passing through the ionosphere near where it was observed, but still do not know for sure whether there is a connection.

The next step is to see whether these ions and electronsare creating STEVE’s light, or if the light is produced higher up in the atmosphere.

To find out more about amateur astronomers studying STEVE, visit

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