Eerie Sky Glow Called ‘Steve’ Isn’t an Aurora, Is ‘Completely Unknown’ to Science

Aug 22, 2018

By Brandon Specktor

Late at night on July 25, 2016, a thin river of purple light slashed through the skies of northern Canada in an arc that seemed to stretch hundreds of miles into space. It was a magnificent, mysterious, borderline-miraculous sight, and the group of citizen skywatchers who witnessed it decided to give the phenomenon a fittingly majestic name: “Steve.”

Given its coincidence with the northern lights, Steve was just thought to be part of the aurora — the shimmering sheets of nighttime color that appear in the sky when charged plasma particles streak out of the sun, sail across space on solar winds and jolt down Earth’s magnetic field toward the planet’s poles. However, a new study published today (Aug. 20) in the journal Geophysical Research Letters suggests that such a simple explanation might not apply.

According to researchers at the University of Calgary in Canada and the University of California, Los Angeles, Steve does not contain the telltale traces of charged particles blasting through Earth’s atmosphere that auroras do. Steve, therefore, is not an aurora at all, but something entirely different: a mysterious, largely unexplained phenomenon that the researchers have dubbed a “sky glow.”

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2 comments on “Eerie Sky Glow Called ‘Steve’ Isn’t an Aurora, Is ‘Completely Unknown’ to Science

  • This looks like a low pressure “arc” discharge. It can’t be self sustaining at atmospheric pressure because the density of apparent ionisation isn’t sufficient for the high pressure losses. I would wager there is a flow of charge in the glow, tapping charge stored in clouds, but at a low current density.

    The ionisation process must be getting assistance from some other source of energy. Perhaps this was from some earlier discharge event causing some atom excitation but pre-ionisation. Atoms can remain excited for quite long times and would experience ambipolar diffusion, broadening out the subsequent visible discharge.

    Finally the discharge could be end fed charged particles from aurora activity and the discharge current starved to stop the negative resistance run away of lightning and sparks by ground or aerial conductivity limits. Depending on end fed particles would be an ideal mechanism.

    This is long slow lightning…

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