For years, the Alberta Aurora Chasers had been seeing a thin, purple streak in the sky.
Little did they know that discovery would lead to an award from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for their role in discovering the phenomenon.
“When we first saw it, we thought it was understood by science already. But it wasn’t. They were completely unfamiliar with it and quite baffled by it,” said Chris Ratzlaff with the Alberta Aurora Chasers.
STEVE as it’s known, was first thought to be a proton arc or an aurora.
An Aurora, described by Ratzlaff, is essentially produced by electronic precipitation. Think rain drops of electrons coming down that get excited and light up. They’re visible to the naked eye generally in deep greens and yellows most often seen in northern Canada.
But according to Ratzlaff, STEVE appears to be more of a horizontal particle movement. The mechanisms that results in it lighting up aren’t fully understood yet.
NASA award: Naming an unknown phenomenon
“So when we first talked to scientists about it, they were like ‘what is this thing?’ and we said ‘oh it’s a proton arc,” Proton arc is a term the global community of aurora chasers have been using up until that point in time,” said Ratzlaff.
“Dr. Eric Donovan from the University of Calgary suggested we shouldn’t call it that because it was scientifically incorrect. So it was left to the community to suggest a temporary name until they understood the physical properties behind it.”
Ratzlaff proposed “Steve” as a discussion prompt and a nod to an animated movie from 2006 called Over the Hedge. That movie’s characters chose the name for something unknown. After discussing a potential name, the community finally settled on “Steve.”
“As a kid growing up NASA was always this really cool thing:” Ratzlaff
Over the last few years, members of the Alberta Aurora Chasers community have collaborated with scientists from the University of Calgary and NASA researcher Elizabeth McDonald on her project Aurorasaurus. Their research eventually led them to publish a paper detailing the purple “optical structure in the upper atmosphere” in 2018.
In May, Ratzlaff found out NASA was presenting him an award. He received the RGH Exceptional Achievement for Science to STEVE and Aurorasaurus for “outstanding discovery and characterization of STEVE, a new type of auroral phenomena, as a ground-breaking example of citizen science.”
“As a kid growing up NASA was always this really cool thing that you want to be connected to. So to have that connection is great.” said Ratzlaff.
“Like I was getting calls from the New York Times from CNN, but to have that formal recognition from NASA was really a first.”