Brilliant auroral displays are happening more and more frequently as the sun reaches its 11-year peak in solar activity — but some of the lights you see might not be auroras at all.
They might be “Steve.”
In 2018, scientists identified a new type of phenomenon in the night sky that looked like a streak of white and purple light.
They called it “Steve,” NASA explained.
NASA thought Steve — a joke name from citizen scientists that was later retconned to mean “Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement” — wasn’t the same as an aurora but was probably formed by the same process.
But a new paper is challenging that hypothesis, arguing that the physical process behind Steve and a similar phenomenon dubbed the “picket fence” is nothing like what creates auroras, according to UC Berkeley.
Claire Gasque is a UC Berkeley graduate physics student who collaborated with scientists at the Space Sciences Laboratory.
Gasque’s paper argues that there are low-altitude electric fields that exist parallel to the Earth’s magnetic field producing Steve and the picket fence, according to UC Berkeley, something that was previously thought to be impossible.
“The most interesting part of Claire’s research is the fact that, for several years now, we have known that there is some exotic physics at work. Brian Harding is a coauthor of this paper and told UC Berkeley that they didn’t even know what the Steve spectrum was.
“Claire’s paper showed that parallel electric fields are capable of explaining this exotic spectrum,” Harding added.
Gasque and her team have proposed that NASA launch a rocket through auroras and eventually through Steve and the picket fence to see if she is right.
“This would upend our modeling of what creates light and the energy in the aurora in some cases,” Gasque said, according to UC Berkeley. “It’s one of the biggest mysteries in space physics right now.”
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