Scientists Discover A New Phenomenon In Night Skies

Posted: Apr 22 2017, 3:08pm CDT | by , Updated: Apr 22 2017, 3:11pm CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 
Scientists Discover a New Phenomenon in Night Skies
Meet Steve, newly discovered astronomical phenomenon. Credit: Dave Markel Photography

Strange ribbon of purple light is called Steve

Most of us have heard of northern lights, those beautiful dancing lights that dazzle the skies of northern hemisphere and cast a mesmerizing spell on every night-watcher. While chasing the northern lights, researchers have discovered another astronomical phenomenon similar to the northern lights. The strange ribbon of purple light has baffled researchers for quite some time. But it has now been recognized by researchers as a distinctive feature and has been given the name of Steve.

The phenomenon was first spotted by University of Calgary’s professor Eric Donovan while looking at the photographs of night skies posted by the group called Alberta Aurora Chasers. The feature was unlike anything ever seen before. The group called this strange purple streak of light captured in their photographs a 'proton arc.’ Proton arc is a mysterious form of northern lights or aurora borealis that is believed to be caused by protons entering the Earth’s atmosphere. But professor Donovan knew it had to be something else because proton auroras are not visible to human eye.

Later, the phenomenon was also detected by European Space Agency’s Swarm magnetic field mission.

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Donovan says that the new finding couldn't have happened 20 years ago when he started to study the aurora.

“In 1997 we had just one all-sky imager in North America to observe the aurora borealis from the ground," said Professor Donovan.

"Back then we would be lucky if we got one photograph a night of the aurora taken from the ground that coincides with an observation from a satellite. Now we have many more all-sky imagers and satellite missions like Swarm so we get more than 100 a night.”

Thanks to the citizen scientists and social media, a lot of information and images of night skies are being shared and accessed faster than ever before, some of which can even lead to new discoveries. The existence of Steve was confirmed by ESA’s Swarm mission, which is primarily designed to study Earth’s magnetic field.

"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,” said Donovan.

“As the satellite flew straight though Steve, data from the electric field instrument showed very clear changes. The temperature 300 km above Earth's surface jumped by 3000°C and the data revealed a 25 km-wide ribbon of gas flowing westwards at about 6 km/s compared to a speed of about 10 m/s either side of the ribbon.”

However, many questions are remained unanswered and the measurements from Swarm and ground-based can be used to better understand the newfound phenomenon.

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