Astronomers at Canada’s University of Calgary have revealed a previously-uncatalogued, purple-colored luminous phenomenon in the sky, found through observations made by citizen scientists, and confirmed by satellite data. The phenomenon consists of a lighted band or ribbon that stretches across the sky, and although it is not actually a new phenomenon, nobody had bothered paying attention to it before now.
And for lack of a better name, the researchers called it ‘Steve’.
Steve (even the phenomenon’s Wikipedia entry uses the name) has been confirmed to not be a typical aurora, as the light is not caused by an interaction of charged particles with the atmosphere. What is known so far is that the ribbon is a stream of hot gas (3,000ºC / 5,432ºF) that is streaking through an upper layer of the atmosphere called the thermosphere, at an altitude of 300 kilometers (186 miles). It is 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) wide, and flows at 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) per second, despite the surrounding air only moving at about 10 meters (32.8 feet) per second.
Steve would also otherwise have gone unnoticed by researchers if is wasn’t for social media. As University of Calgary professor Eric Donovan explains, "it turns out that Steve is actually remarkably common, but we hadn’t noticed it before. It’s thanks to ground-based observations, satellites, today’s explosion of access to data and an army of citizen scientists joining forces to document it."
The phenomenon’s nickname comes from the animated film Over the Hedge, where the characters dub a phenomenon that they don’t understand ‘Steve’.