Project Steve: Nasa Needs You to Study Mystery Aurora-like Lights in the Sky

Meet Steve. He's skinny, purple and a really great dancer.

Over the last few years, citizen scientists have been sharing pictures of a mysterious, aurora-like purple arc 'dancing' in the sky. Earlier this week researchers confirmed the arc is a distinct structure largely unstudied in scientific literature.

NASA wants your help spotting Steve, because scientists don't know all that much about it. Mapping the newest dancer in the sky can help scientists better understand auroras, and what they could mean for near-Earth space weather.

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Steve dances in the sky above Childs Lake, Manitoba, Canada, in front of the Milky Way. Krista Trinder

Canadian aurora enthusiast Chris Ratzlaff nicknamed the lights "Steve", referring to a line from 2006 kids' movie Over the Hedge, Science reports. Researchers have backronymed the lights as "Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement," or Steve.

Elizabeth MacDonald from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, and colleagues used satellite observations of Steve to understand the light show. They found Steve's charged particles were far hotter than those in the nearby atmosphere. Satellites also revealed a strong flow of ions westward, confirming its aurora-like nature. Their results were published in Science Advances.

Read more: Amateur Scientist Discovers Mysterious New Aurora in Canada and Its Name Is 'Steve'

"Whether you're an astronaut, a scientist, or an intrepid sky gazer, you can help scientists learn more about STEVE's appearance, lifecycle and implications," the agency wrote in a statement.

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Steve appears over Helena Lake Ranch, British Columbia, Canada in the early evening. Steve was visible for about an hour. Andy Witteman (@CNLastro)

NASA has some top tips for budding Steve-gazers. First, you'll need to look a little closer to the equator than you would for a regular aurora. Steve likes to hang out about 5-10 degrees further south in the northern hemisphere.

Steve isn't just for Canadians—the ribbon has been spotted from the U.K., northern U.S. states like Alaska and New Zealand.

Mysterious Pulsating Auroras Caused by Showers of Electrons

Look out for a green light in the shape of a picket fence that sometimes accompanies the subauroral arc. This green fence is only short-lived, but Steve can linger from 20 minutes to a full hour.

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Steve lights up the sky above Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. Paulo Fedozzi

So far, skywatchers have only seen Steve alongside an aurora, and researchers are trying to figure out how these two spectacles are connected.

The arc of light has only been observed from October to February over the last two years, so it could be seasonal. Now the winter months are over, the beautiful structure might be visible again.

If you spot Steve—or a normal aurora—you can report it at www.aurorasaurus.org.

Project Steve: Nasa Needs You to Study Mystery Aurora-like Lights in the Sky | Tech & Science