The mysterious glowing purple ribbon known as “Steve” made a rare appearance in the night skies above the UK’s northeast on Sunday, coinciding with sightings of the better-known Northern Lights.
Steve’s surprise showing delighted skywatchers across Northumberland, Durham, and Scotland who managed to photograph the elusive phenomenon. Let’s explore why this celestial display is called Steve and what causes it.
Whimsical Pop Culture Origins of ‘Steve’ Name
The ethereal lights were unknown to science until amateur photographers helped uncover their existence in recent years. Lacking an official designation, the name Steve was informally adopted in 2016.
The moniker comes from the animated film “Over the Hedge,” in which animals encounter a tall hedge and dub it Steve since they don’t know what else to call the mysterious entity.
Similar whimsy led citizen scientists to nickname the glowing streaks Steve as a placeholder until their properties were studied further. The acronym STEVE was later derived – Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.
Distinct From Auroras Despite Similar Appearance
While Steve’s spectral, flowing purple ribbons bear resemblance to the northern lights, scientists have found it is not actually a traditional aurora.
It arises from hot charged particles in a stream called a subauroral ion drift (SAID). Auroras meanwhile occur when solar particles interact with gases in the atmosphere.
So despite frequent proximity to auroras, Steve results from an entirely separate process, making its sporadic appearances even more noteworthy.
Limited Sightings Leave Steve’s Origins Mysterious
Given Steve’s fleeting and sporadic nature, researchers still have unanswered questions about the precise mechanics behind it.
Comprehensive study requires photographing instances as they develop, but Steve only materializes for 20 minutes to an hour before vanishing into the night.
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Widths span 15-25 miles, often taking the form of a luminous purple smudge tinged with green. While Steve has been spotted globally, recordings remain too scarce to fully decode the phenomenon.
A Signature of Northern and Southern Latitudes
Early reports placed Steve sightings in northern climes like Canada, Scotland and New Zealand. But citizen science reveals Steve also manifests over southern hemisphere locations including Tasmania.
Their common latitudes indicate the mechanism likely relates to Earth’s magnetic fields and charged particle flows rather than atmospheric dynamics that produce auroras.
Finding connected instances of Steve across hemispheres provides helpful clues into what drives its generation.
Ongoing Research to Demystify the Celestial Sight
NASA continues analyzing ground and satellite imagery to uncover Steve’s origins. A key challenge is its lack of predictability unlike auroras, meaning scientists must rely on chance sightings.
Studying Steve remains tricky but solves piece by piece may someday fully explain its ethereal beauty. In the meantime, sky-watchers consider spotting the elusive phenomenon an exceptional treat.
The rare glow is a testament to how much mystery still pervades the heavens, even in well-surveyed places like the UK. Steve reminds us our planetary neighborhood still holds secrets.
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