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The Enigmatic, Celestial Steve Makes an Appearance in Scotland

Thanks to citizen scientists, this aurora is anthropomorphic.

The aurora called Steve, seen here in Canada.
The aurora called Steve, seen here in Canada. NASA/Public Domain

There’s something about the name Steve. Variously a Flight of the Conchords punchline; a parody society of 1,425 scientists who “support evolution;” and the human second fiddle to Blue’s Clues’ Blue, it now has another, more celestial, claim to fame. Steve is an aurora: a vast, glowing ribbon of light in the night sky, lit up a brilliant lilac and kelly green. This week, the BBC reports, the mysterious aurora made an appearance in Scotland, where it was sighted on the remote isles of Skye and Lewis.

Steve is perhaps the greatest astronomical discovery by citizen scientists of all time. Spotted by a group of aurora watchers from Alberta, Canada, in 2017, it made its official scientific debut last week in a paper published Wednesday in Science Advances. While other phenomena enjoy less glamorous names—“proton arc”, say—Steve’s unusual moniker is a gift from its finders.

“Shall we start calling it a gas ribbon, or shall we stick with Steve for now?” mused one member in April 2017, in their aurora watchers’ Facebook group. In response, another member quoted the 2006 children’s film, Over the Hedge: “Why would you want to change its name? It’s a pretty name… Steve sounds nice.” (It’s since been decided that Steve stands for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement, for what it’s worth.)

Unlike the Northern Lights, Steve can be observed much closer to the equator, and comes from a spot nearly twice as high in the sky, at an altitude of a 280 miles. Its recent discovery belies its prevalence, researcher Eric Donavon told the European Space Agency. “It turns out that Steve is actually remarkably common, but we hadn’t noticed it before,” he said. “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.” That extraordinary name might have been more fitting than its citizen scientists originally thought—after all, there are an awful lot of Steves out there.