“I saw all these people tweeting about it, and I thought, we have to get these on a map,” she told me. But the project doesn’t just look cool. “All of these citizen-science reports, in aggregate, can be compared to our models of aurora and ground-truth them, to give us a sense of how far south the aurora is extending,” she said.
One of the first groups she recruited for the effort was the Alberta Aurora Chasers. Over time, she became a regular in the forum, piping in whenever someone asked a scientific question. (“People love it when someone from NASA comes on,” said Ratzlaff.) Finally, in early 2016, MacDonald traveled to the University of Calgary to deliver an academic symposium. Her dozens of local aurora-watching fans more or less crashed her high-level talk.
Afterward, MacDonald and the aurora-watchers—and Eric Donovan, a surprised and suddenly very popular aurora researcher at the University of Calgary—went to a local pub to chat.
It was there that Donovan first saw the purple streak. What is that?, he asked, as a member of the Facebook group showed off their photo of a brilliant purple streak in the sky.
It was, the photographer replied, a “proton arc.”
Donovan corrected him: There was no way it could be a proton arc, as the proton aurora was both invisible and nothing like the image on the screen. The photographer replied that the lavender ribbon had to be a proton arc, because that’s what other people had said it was.
Ratzlaff soon got involved, and he confirmed that he, too, had seen the proton arc.
Well, whatever it was, Donovan replied, it wasn’t known to science. The physicists and the aurora-watching amateurs in attendance resolved to study it in depth. It would be a perfect project for Aurorasaurus, as well.
Except there was one problem: “You can’t call it a proton arc,” Ratzlaff remembers one of the physicists saying. “A proton arc is something else entirely. You need to give it a name that doesn’t imply you know what the physical properties are.”
Very well, said Ratzlaff. Let’s call it Steve.
The name was a sly reference to the 2006 children’s film Over the Hedge, in which a group of computer-animated woodland creatures resolves to call a massive new hedge “Steve” in order to surmount their fear of it. But the unusual name didn’t seem like a big deal to Ratzlaff. “I work in software development, so we use code names to describe what our projects are, before they have names, all the time,” he told me. “To me, this is perfectly natural. It’s a placeholder.”
The moniker was useful, too. “In our community, someone could say, ‘Hey, I saw Steve tonight,’ and everyone would know what they meant,” he said.
It eventually grew to be more than a placeholder. Last year, Donovan gave a presentation at the European Space Agency titled: “How I Met Steve.” The story went viral, and the name stuck. In the new paper, the phenomenon got its own backronym: the Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement. But neither amateurs nor researchers use such a highfalutin title in their everyday speech. Just Steve is still fine.