Aurora bo­re­alis — and Steve — ex­plained

Calgary Herald - - FRONT PAGE - JON ROE twit­­jon­roe [email protected]

A new episode of The Na­ture of Things air­ing Sun­day fea­tures Univer­sity of Calgary re­searchers and Calgary mem­bers of the Al­berta Aurora Chasers Face­book group.

The episode, which was filmed out­side of Yel­lowknife, is ti­tled The Won­der of the North­ern Lights and “ex­plains it all” when it comes to au­ro­ras bo­re­alis, in­clud­ing “Steve,” a newly dis­cov­ered, aurora-re­lated, night-sky phe­nom­e­non that went vi­ral in 2017.

“Of­ten­times it’s re­ported that the Earth’s mag­netic field traps elec­trons from the sun and they spi­ral down the mag­netic poles and they cause light,” says Eric Dono­van, a U of C pro­fes­sor in physics and as­tron­omy and codi­rec­tor of the Aurora Imag­ing Group. “That’s the kind of pithy ex­pla­na­tion of the aurora that you find in books and in me­dia. It’s not true, it’s not right. It’s com­pletely wrong, ac­tu­ally.”

Dono­van stud­ies the mag­ne­to­sphere, a wind­sock-shaped re­gion of space around the Earth that is cre­ated when the so­lar wind in­ter­acts with Earth’s mag­netic field. It is par­ti­cles and pro­cesses there that cre­ate au­ro­ras bo­re­alis. “Peo­ple like to say I study the aurora, but I don’t re­ally,” he says. “I’m a mag­ne­to­spheric guy and the aurora is my in­stru­ment. And the cam­eras are the way I read the data off my in­stru­ment.”

Dono­van is one of three U of C re­searchers fea­tured in the TV episode, which also fea­tures the Al­berta Aurora Chasers, a Face­book group of am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­phers and en­thu­si­asts. It was a meet­ing be­tween the chasers and Dono­van that led to the vi­ral dis­cov­ery of the night-sky phe­nom­e­non ti­tled Steve.

“It’s a new night-sky phe­nom­e­non that am­a­teur night sky watch­ers and pho­tog­ra­phers knew about, but we didn’t,” says Dono­van.

“We weren’t the first to see the phe­nom­e­non,” adds Chris Rat­zlaff, one of the co-founders of the now nearly 19,000-strong Al­berta Aurora Chasers. “It was seen around the world for years, decades, prob­a­bly cen­turies. What we did is help the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity rec­og­nize it.”

Dono­van met with mem­bers of the Al­berta Aurora Chasers group, in­clud­ing Rat­zlaff, af­ter at­tend­ing a 2016 talk by a NASA sci­en­tist in Calgary. The chasers showed pic­tures to Dono­van of a bright, pur­ple streak of light in the sky they had seen dur­ing aurora sight­ings, which they called “the pro­ton arc.” Dono­van con­vinced them it wasn’t a good name, so Rat­zlaff came up with the name Steve as a ref­er­ence to the movie Over the Hedge.

A few months later, Steve came to the at­ten­tion of the Euro­pean Space Agency af­ter Dono­van gave a week­end pre­sen­ta­tion about it in Banff.

The ESA wrote a news re­lease, and by Mon­day Dono­van was on the BBC talk­ing about Steve.

“Within a week, my full-time job for three weeks was do­ing in­ter­views,” says Dono­van, who is still re­search­ing what causes Steve. “It was vi­ral.”

The episode also prom­ises to an­swer ques­tions about the con­nec­tions be­tween aurora and the pos­si­bil­ity of ex­trater­res­trial life, the 2003 su­per so­lar storm and the role au­ro­ras play in the cul­ture of the Indige­nous peo­ple of Canada’s north.

The episode will be broad­cast on CBC on Sun­day at 8 p.m. and will also be avail­able on­line at watch and the CBC app on Fri­day start­ing at 10 a.m.


Am­a­teur sky­watch­ers in Al­berta have logged a new phe­nom­e­non in the north­ern lights, a strange rib­bon of pur­ple light that oc­ca­sion­ally emerges in au­ro­ras bo­re­alis that has been dubbed “Steve.” A Univer­sity of Calgary as­tronomer says it’s ac­tu­ally com­mon, but hadn’t been no­ticed prior to the rise of so­cial me­dia and cit­i­zen sci­en­tists.


Chris Rat­zlaff, David Suzuki and Eric Dono­van ap­pear on the Na­ture of Things on Sun­day to shed light on au­ro­ras, in­clud­ing a pos­si­ble con­nec­tion to ex­trater­res­trial life.

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