These Ghostly Lights Are Not An Aurora – So What Are They?

Some years ago scientists discovered a  new atmospheric phenomenon that was named “Steve”.

“Steve” was as previously reported believed to be a new type of aurora. When scientists first looked at images of STEVE, they realized the lights were slightly different than light from typical auroras but were not sure what underlying mechanism was causing them.

Now it turns out that those ghostly purple and white lights seen in the sky are not an aurora, but something completely else.

The atmospheric phenomenon ‘STEVE’ which appears as a purple and green light ribbon in the sky.
Credit: © Ryan / Fotolia

Auroras are visible every night if viewing conditions are right, but the thin light ribbons of STEVE were only visible a few times per year. The light from STEVE was also showing up closer to the equator than the aurora, which can only be seen at high latitudes.

According to a new study published in Geophysical Research Letters, STEVE is produced by a different atmospheric process than the aurora, making it an entirely new type of optical phenomenon.

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“Our main conclusion is that STEVE is not an aurora. So right now, we know very little about it. And that’s the cool thing, because this has been known by photographers for decades. But for the scientists, it’s completely unknown,” said Bea Gallardo-Lacourt, a space physicist at the University of Calgary in Canada and lead author of the new study.

Studying STEVE can help scientists better understand the upper atmosphere and the processes generating light in the sky, according to the authors.

“This is really interesting because we haven’t figured it out and when you get a new problem, it’s always exciting,” said Joe Borovsky, a space physicist at the Space Science Institute in Los Alamos, New Mexico who was not connected to the new study. “It’s like you think you know everything and it turns out you don’t.”

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