Steve and the Color Purple

It’s not often that a new discovery takes place that baffles the minds of lifelong scientists. This is a story about one that seems to have gone viral over the last few days. The abbreviated version (summarized from this article, this article, and this article, and many others like it) is as follows:

A group of dedicated aurora photographers noted a particular type of aurora that was different from what we normally think of. Instead of a rapidly changing curtain of light glowing green or red, it is a single arc of light, “purple” in color, with less apparent motion than a normal aurora. It doesn’t appear to move with the Earth’s magnetic field. The picture that accompanies every article about it is this one:

Photograph credited to Dave Markel Photography

Photograph credited to Dave Markel Photography

The early guess was that it’s an example of a “proton arc” – a type of aurora caused by high energy protons rather than electrons. (Do a Google Image Search for “proton arc” and you’ll see many other examples.) However, the plot thickened when an expert on the aurora, Prof. Eric Donovan at the University of Calgary, debunked that guess based on the fact that proton arcs are not visible to the human eye. This was backed up by a graduate student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Not knowing what else to call it, the dedicated aurora photographers named it Steve. No joke. (It comes from the animated movie, Over the Hedge.) The name has caught on, and now the internet is full of photographic examples of “Steve”. Here’s a time lapse video.

The Aurorasaurus Project has compiled a list of things we know about Steve. Our expert aurora professor matched up a known time and location of a Steve photograph with an overpass of the European Space Agency’s Swarm satellites and found this out:

“As the satellite flew straight though Steve, data from the electric field instrument showed very clear changes. The temperature 300 kilometres (185 miles) above Earth’s surface jumped by 3,000°C (5,400 degrees Fahrenheit) and the data revealed a 25 kilometre (15.5 mile) wide ribbon of gas flowing westwards at about 6 km/s (3.7 miles per second) compared to a speed of about 10 m/s (32.8 feet per second) either side of the ribbon.”

So, while we don’t exactly know what causes “Steve”, we do know that it is relatively common. (Do that Google Image Search for “proton arc” again for proof.) And we know it’s not a proton arc. Of course, the question that is relevant to us on this blog is: Can the VIIRS Day/Night Band see Steve?

There was a significant geomagnetic storm 22-23 April 2017 that may provide the answer. One of the Alberta Aurora Chasers (our dedicated group of aurora photographers) took this picture and, in the comments, noted the location (Lake Minnewanka, Alberta) and approximate time (“maybe 12:30” AM on the 22nd). Compare that with the nearest Day/Night Band image:

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (08:12 UTC 22 April 2017)

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (08:12 UTC 22 April 2017)

I put a gold star on there to indicate the location of Lake Minnewanka. Don’t see it? Here’s a close-up:

VIIRS Day/Night Band image above zoomed-in on Lake Minnewanka.

VIIRS Day/Night Band image above zoomed-in on Lake Minnewanka. The gold star indicates the location of the lake.

Unfortunately, Lake Minnewanka is outside the VIIRS swath. But, Aurorasaurus says Steve is often hundreds or thousands of miles long, and oriented east-west, so it should extend into the VIIRS swath. Now, this VIIRS image was taken at about 2:15 AM local time, almost two hours after the photograph was taken. Aurorasaurus also says Steve is visible on the order of minutes, “up to 20 minutes or more”. So, maybe Steve disappeared in the time between the two images. I certainly don’t see any straight or smooth arc of light near the star that resembles Steve. Although, just north of Calgary (the closest city within the VIIRS swath to Lake Minnewanka) there is faint evidence of aurora light, and it is on the equator-ward side of the aurora, which is consistent with previous observations.

The streaks of light visible near Calgary (and general streakiness across the whole aurora) are due to the way the VIIRS instrument scans the scene and the high-temporal variability of the aurora, which we’ve discussed before. But, as I mentioned, these streaks don’t extend for hundreds or thousands of miles.

Maybe, VIIRS had better luck on the next overpass (~3:55 AM local time):

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (09:53 UTC 22 April 2017)

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (09:53 UTC 22 April 2017)

Again, nothing jumps out to say, “Aha! That’s Steve!” So, was Steve there and VIIRS failed to see it? Or, was Steve not there at the time of the VIIRS overpass? The answer to that depends in part on the definition of “purple”.

Is Steve really “purple” as people describe? Or, is it violet? Wikipedia actually has a good section on this (at least, until someone edits it). There’s also the page discussing the “Line of Purples“. The problem stems from the fact that violet is a color similar to purple, but is physically very different. Violet is the name given to a specific wavelength range of light, specifically the visible portion of the spectrum less than 450 nm. Purple is a combination of blue and red wavelengths – blue being wavelengths between ~450 nm and ~495 nm and red being anything visible above ~620 nm. Violet and purple look similar to us because the cone cells in our eyes have a similar response to both colors. However, in the RGB color space of the computer you’re viewing this on, and in the color cameras used to take pictures of Steve, violet is impossible to duplicate. This is because violet is not a combination of red, green and blue – it’s its own wavelength. The red, green and blue light emitting diodes (or phosphors on a plasma screen) don’t emit violet wavelengths. Your camera stores the information it collects in RGB color space, too, and has to approximate violet the same way your computer does – by making it a bluer shade of purple. Depending on the camera, the detectors used may not even be sensitive to violet light.

So, what does this mean for VIIRS? The Day/Night Band is not sensitive to radiation at wavelengths shorter than ~500 nm, which includes blue and violet. But, it is sensitive to red and beyond – up to ~900 nm. So, if Steve really is purple, the Day/Night Band will only be sensitive to the red component of it. (It would be more faint, but VIIRS would likely be sensitive to it, given that it is sensitive to airglow, which is much more faint than the aurora.) If Steve is really violet, than the Day/Night Band won’t see it at all.

So, can the Day/Night Band detect Steve? I can’t answer that based on this information. We will have to wait for another dedicated aurora photographer to take a picture of Steve at a time and place when VIIRS is directly overhead. Feel cheated by that? Just enjoy the images of the aurora above. And, here are a few more from this event:

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (11:34 UTC 22 April 2017)

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (11:34 UTC 22 April 2017)

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (07:53 UTC 23 April 2017)

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (07:53 UTC 23 April 2017)

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (09:34 UTC 23 April 2017)

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (09:34 UTC 23 April 2017)

Don’t forget to click on them to see the full resolution!

UPDATE (13 October 2017): Over the years, I have looked at a number of Day/Night Band images of the aurora. During that time, I’ve noticed some “auroras” that appear to be very “Steve”-like. One example is shown in the image below from 17 January 2015.

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (13:09 UTC 17 January 2015)

VIIRS Day/Night Band image (13:09 UTC 17 January 2015)

The question is: is this an example of Steve? Or, just a less active aurora?

Of course, being over a remote part of northern Alaska, it’s unlikely anyone got a photograph to prove it was Steve. We’ll still have to wait for the perfect alignment of Steve, Steve-hunters and VIIRS to know if the Day/Night Band can (or cannot) detect them.

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