Here’s How to See Steve, the Mysterious Phenomenon Outshining the Northern Lights

Sep 28, 2018

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Aurora’s got a little brother named Steve, and stargazers think he’s very pretty — but he’s shy, so you’ll have to do a little planning if you want to catch sight of him.

Steve’s a dazzling atmospheric phenomenon that seems to have appeared from out of nowhere the last few years, astounding both professionals and amateurs who’ve looked to the skies for decades. It looks like a thin ribbon of pinkish, magenta or purplish light that shines in a nearly straight line running east to west. When it appears with the aurora, aka the Northern (or Southern) Lights, it can form a striking image that paints the whole night sky.

“A really strong event will be mauve from the eastern horizon to the western horizon, long and prominent, sometimes with little shards of green aurora,” said Chris Ratzlaff, the amateur photographer and resident of Calgary, Alberta, who gave Steve its name. “Imagine a literal picket fence running along the equatorial edge.”

(Photo by Megan Hoffman/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)
Steve’s the pinkish line jutting into the sky on the left. The aurora is the greenish fuzz on the right. (Photo by Megan Hoffman/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

First documented definitively in 2015 but possibly sighted as early as the ’80s and ’90s, Steve was originally written off as an atmospheric proton arc, but NASA experts quickly ruled that explanation out. It seems to have some connection to the aurora borealis, always showing up alongside it, at least so far, but is a distinct beast that has scientists scratching their heads. Studies as to its origins and causes have so far come up empty. Without anything more scientific to hang to it, Ratzlaff, administrator of the Canadian Facebook group Alberta Aurora Chasers, named it after a scene in the children’s movie “Over the Hedge,” with the name only later coming to stand for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.

Far from dissuading amateur astronomers from pursuing Steve, the phenomenon’s enigmatic origins have received global attention and inspired aurora chasers to seek it out.

(Photo by Megan Hoffman/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)
(Photo by Megan Hoffman/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.)

If you want to join them and meet Steve yourself, you’ll need to be in the rather narrow band of latitudes where it’s most visible. Though there have been Steve sightings as far away as Scotland in the northern hemisphere and Tasmania and New Zealand in the southern hemisphere, your best bet is in the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, or south of Edmonton and north of Calgary (53 degrees and 37 minutes north latitude and 51 degrees north latitude).

Though at first Steve didn’t seem to care about the time of year, Ratzaff said Steve chasers have begun to suspect there’s some seasonality to its appearances. Steve seems to prefer showing up around the spring and autumnal equinoxes — or right about now — though Ratzlaff’s seen it plenty of times after May and before September as well.

Steve gravitates toward the equator more than the aurora, so you’ll be looking toward the southern horizon. If you’re looking with the naked eye, it’s also less obvious than the aurora, so you’ll have to make a point of looking out for Steve.

“I suspect people have been standing right beneath Steve and never seen it, especially if you have the aurora to the north and you’re watching that while Steve is to the south,” Ratzlaff said.

Don’t mix up the aurora with Steve, though it shouldn’t be hard not to confuse them.

“An aurora is big, fuzzy and green, and this is the opposite of that,” Ratzlaff said. “It’s a lot more stable than the aurora, which tends to dance a bit. Steve definitely doesn’t have much of a wave to it. From below, it really looks like an airplane contrail, but ranges from beige to fairly pink to more of a light mauve.”

If you’re really dedicated to spotting Steve, use modern technology to your advantage and try to catch it on camera. You’ll use a setup similar to the one you’d use to catch an aurora, but because Steve is milder than the Northern lights, you’ll need a higher ISO or longer exposure. (Ratzlaff generally starts with his aperture as wide open as possible, ISO 3200 and a 10-second exposure, then adjusts as needed.) Obviously, this is a good place to use a wide-angle lens.

If you do catch it, be sure to take a moment to appreciate what you’re witnessing, too.

“It’s really fascinating to see the story evolve and grow, and to really be able to see something that’s not understood about our planet,” Ratzlaff said.

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