Steve and the Milky Way at Childs Lake, Manitoba, Canada. The picture is a composite of 11 images stitched together. Copyright Krista Tinder
Last May, the work of citizen scientists helped establish the existence of a weird form of the aurora nicknamed Steve. Now almost a year later, aurora scientists know a lot more about Steve and happily have kept the name and turned it into a nerdy acronym — STEVE for “Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.” Apparently, they’ve known about the phenomenon for some time but didn’t think it was visible from the ground.
I can report that on those rare occasions when Steve does show up, it’s very obvious as a narrow arc of pulsing light that extends from northwest to northeast east to west crossing high in the southern sky. It resembles a jet contrail but remains in place with a glow of its own, a sort of line in the sand when all the other auroral forms are dancing about with abandon. In addition to random pulsations, it’s occasionally crosshatched by short, picket-fence-type streaks.
When a strong blast from the sun blows past Earth, it can peel back part of the planet’s magnetic field and stretch ...