Science / Space

STEVE in the sky

No, I don’t mean an astronaut called Steve. It’s a celestial phenomenon spotted by citizen scientists and skywatchers and finally starting to be studied. STEVE stands for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement, which sounds to me like SWAP — Someone Wanted A Punny Acronym (a phenomenon which can be observed across the sciences, and which I’m not that great at). Regardless of the reasons behind it, STEVE is honestly beautiful. I mean, look at it!

Image credit: Krista Trinder

But to me it’s even better that we can see something beautiful like this and then decide, you know what? I’m going to find out how this works. So a newly released paper confirms that STEVE is not an aurora-type phenomenon. Auroras happen because charged particles from the solar wind and the Earth’s magnetosphere end up in the Earth’s atmosphere, where their energy is lost in brilliant displays: the northern lights, or aurora borealis, and the southern lights, aurora australis.

STEVE is a different kettle of fish, and doesn’t happen because of charged particles precipitating into the atmosphere. It seems from the paper that the scientists aren’t sure yet what it is, but one theory is that it’s a whole new thing related to the ionosphere of the Earth (as opposed to the magnetosphere).

It’s kind of satisfying to know that here on Earth, there are new things for us to discover and investigate, even before we actually manage to leave Earth and our solar system and explore the great big universe. And who knows? Earth might be the only place in the knowable universe where we could see STEVE — conditions on Earth could be rare enough that they’re not right for STEVE anywhere else.

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