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.

The Aurora Seen Around The World

Think back to St. Patrick’s Day. Do you remember what you were doing? Hopefully you were wearing something green. And, hopefully, you didn’t leave anything green in the gutter behind the bar (e.g. undigested lunch or beverages or a mixture of the two). If you did, we don’t want to hear about it. It’s unpleasant enough that you had to read that and have that image in your mind. Apologies if you are eating.

If your mind was lucid enough that night, or the following night, did you remember to look up to the northern sky? Or, right above you, if you live far enough north? (Swap “north” for “south” if you live in the Southern Hemisphere. Everything is backwards there.) Was it a clear night?

If you answered “no” to the first two questions and “yes” to the third question, you missed out on an opportunity to see something green in the sky – one of the great atmospheric wonders of the world: the aurora. If you answered “yes” then “no”, tough luck. The lower atmosphere does not always cooperate with the upper atmosphere. If you answered “yes” on everything and still didn’t see the aurora, then you need to move closer to your nearest magnetic pole. Or, away from light pollution. (Although, truth be told, it is possible to live too far north or south to see the aurora. But, not many people live there. Those who do rarely have to worry about light pollution.)

If you forgot to look up at the night sky on 17-18 March 2015, you have no excuse. The media was hyping the heck out of it. That link is just one example of media predictions of the aurora being visible as far south as Dallas and Atlanta. While I couldn’t find any photographic evidence that that actually happened, there were people as far south as Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey that saw the aurora. In the other hemisphere – the backwards, upside-down one – the aurora was seen as far north as Australia and New Zealand, which is a relatively rare occurrence for them. And there are no shortage of pictures and videos if you want proof: pictures, more pictures, even more pictures, video and pictures, video, and a couple more short videos here, here and here.

Now, we already know that VIIRS can see the aurora. We’ve covered both the aurora borealis and aurora australis before. This time, we’ll take a look at both at the same time – not literally, of course! – since the Day/Night Band viewed the aurora (borealis and australis) on every orbit for an entire 24 hour period, during which time it covered every part of the Earth. So, follow along as VIIRS circled the globe in every sense of the word during this event.

First, we start with the aurora australis over the South Pacific, south of Pitcairn Island, at 10:15 UTC on 17 March 2015. We then proceed westward, ending over the South Pacific, south of Easter Island at 08:16 UTC on 18 March 2015. Click on each image in the gallery to see the medium resolution version. Above each of those images is a link containing the dimensions of the high resolution version. Click on that to see the full resolution.

Notice how much variability there is in the spatial extent and shape of the aurora from one orbit to the next. Everything is represented, from diffuse splotches to well-defined ribbons (which are technical terms, of course, wink, wink). You can see just how close the aurora was to being directly over Australia and New Zealand. And, if you looked at the high resolution versions of all the images (which are very large), you might have seen this:

VIIRS DNB image of the aurora australis, 18:39 UTC 17 March 2015

VIIRS DNB image of the aurora australis, 18:39 UTC 17 March 2015.

Just below center, the aurora is illuminating gravity waves forced by Heard Island. The aurora is also directly overhead of it’s “twin”, “Desolation Island” (aka Îles Kerguelen, upper-right corner right at the edge of the swath), although it looks too cloudy for the scientists and penguins living there to see it. (How many more Remote Islands can I mention that I’ve featured before?)

Now, I’m a sucker for animations, so I thought I’d combine all of these images into one and here it is (you can click on it to see the full-resolution version):

Animation of VIIRS DNB images of the aurora australis, 17-18 March 2015

Animation of VIIRS DNB images of the aurora australis, 17-18 March 2015.

Here, it is easier to notice that the aurora is much further north (away from the South Pole) near Australia and New Zealand and further south (closer to the pole) near South America. This is proof that the geomagnetic pole does not coincide with the geographic pole. This also puts the southern tips of Chile and Argentina at a disadvantage when it comes to seeing the aurora, compared to Australia and New Zealand.

Now, repeat everything for the aurora borealis – beginning over central Canada (07:57 UTC 17 March 2015) and ending there ~24 hours later (07:40 UTC 18 March 2015):

Basically, if you were anywhere in Siberia where there were no clouds, you could have seen the aurora. (For those who are not impressed, Siberia is a big area.) Did you see the aurora directly over North Dakota? (I showed a video of that above.) Did you notice it was mostly south of Anchorage, Alaska? (Typically, it’s over Fairbanks.) It was pretty close to Moscow and Scotland, also. But, what about the sightings in Ohio, New Jersey, and Germany? It doesn’t look like the aurora was close to those places…

For one, the aurora doesn’t have to be overhead to see it. Depending on the circumstances (e.g. auroral activity, atmospheric visibility, light pollution, etc.), you can be 5 degrees or more of latitude away and it will be visible. Second, these are single snapshots of an aurora that is constantly moving. (We already know the aurora can move pretty fast.) It may have been closer to these places when VIIRS wasn’t there to see it.

Lastly, here’s an animation of the above images, moving in the proper clockwise direction, unlike in that backwards, upside-down hemisphere:

Animation of VIIRS DNB images of the aurora borealis, 17-18 March 2015

Animation of VIIRS DNB images of the aurora borealis, 17-18 March 2015.

If you want to know more about what causes the aurora, watch this video. If you want to know why auroras appear in different colors, read this. If you want to know why aboriginal Australians viewed the aurora as an omen of fire, blood, death and punishment, and why various Native American tribes viewed the aurora as dancing spirits that were happy, well, you have a lot more reading to do: link, link and link.

Aurora Australis from the Day-Night Band

How fast does an aurora move? I “googled” it, and got answers ranging from “fast” to “very fast”. Not very scientific. It also doesn’t help that the majority of aurora videos on the Internet are time-lapse footage, and there’s no way to know how fast the footage has been sped up. Although, I did find this video that claims to be real-time footage:

When the camera is still, you could try to calculate the speed of some of the aurora elements if you knew where the cameraman was, what stars were in the view (and how far apart they are), and how high up (or how far away) the aurora was at that time. All information that I don’t have.

What if I said we could estimate the speed of the aurora by examining VIIRS Day/Night Band (DNB) images?

Here’s a DNB image of the aurora australis (a.k.a. Southern Lights) over Antarctica, taken on 1 October 2012:

VIIRS DNB image of the aurora australis, taken 00:22 UTC 1 October 2012

VIIRS DNB image of the aurora australis, taken 00:22 UTC 1 October 2012

Compare this image with the images of the aurora borealis shown back in March 2012. Something doesn’t look right. Far from looking like smooth curtains of light, the aurora (particularly the brightest one) has a jagged appearance, like a set of steps. (This is easier to notice if you click on the image to see it in higher resolution.) This is because the aurora wouldn’t stay still, and we can use this information to estimate the speed it was moving.

The stripes that you see in the image are a caused by the 16 detectors that comprise the DNB which, for various reasons, don’t have exactly the same sensitivity to light. (This condition is given a super-scientific name: “striping”.) The DNB senses light from the Earth by having a constantly rotating mirror reflect light onto these detectors. One rotation of the mirror (particularly the part that occurs within the field of view of the sensor) comprises one scan. Each detector comprises one row of pixels in each scan, each with 742 m x 742 m resolution at nadir. There are 48 scans in one “granule” (the amount of data transmitted in one data file), and it takes ~84 seconds to collect the data that make up one granule. That means it takes ~1.75 seconds per scan.

If you watch that video again, you’ll notice that the aurora can move quite a bit in 2 seconds. Now, let’s zoom in much more closely on one of the aurora elements:

Zoomed-in VIIRS DNB image of an aurora, taken 00:22 UTC 1 October 2012

Zoomed-in VIIRS DNB image of an aurora, taken 00:22 UTC 1 October 2012

This image has been rotated relative to the original image, in case you were wondering why it doesn’t seem to match up with the first image. The brightest pixels are where the brightest aurora elements were located. The “steps” (or “shifts” as they are typically called) occur every 16 pixels, which mark out the end of one scan and the beginning of the next.  If you count the number of pixels that the brightest aurora elements shifted from one scan to the next, it varies from about 6 to 10 pixels. Assuming a constant resolution of 742 m per pixel along the scan (which isn’t exactly true, the resolution degrades a little bit as you get closer to the edge of the scan but not by much), that means this particular aurora element moved somewhere between ~4.5 and ~7.5 km in ~1.75 seconds from one scan to the next. Doing the math (don’t forget to carry the 1), that comes out to somewhere between 9000 and 15,000 km h-1 (rounded to account for possible sources of error), which I guess counts as “very fast”. But, it’s not as fast as the coronal mass ejections that create auroras. They have an average speed of 489 km s-1 (1,760,000 km h-1)!

So, what looks like an oddity in the VIIRS image, actually contains some interesting scientific information about the speed of an “active aurora“.

But, we’re not done yet. Let’s get back to the striping. Along with “stray light”, it’s one of the few remaining issues in VIIRS imagery. Stray light, which you can see evidence of in the lower right corner of first aurora image, is a particular problem in the DNB. It occurs when sunlight is reflected onto the detectors when the satellite is on the nighttime side of the Earth, but close to the edge of the day/night “terminator“. Our colleagues at Northrup Grumman have been working on a correction to stray light that also reduces the striping. This correction allows for much better viewing of auroras, which have a tendency to occur right where stray light is an issue.

Here is an image of another aurora over Antarctica, taken on 15 September 2012, corrected for stray light and striping:

VIIRS DNB image of the aurora australis over Antarctica, taken 18:56 UTC 15 September 2012

VIIRS DNB image of the aurora australis over Antarctica, taken 18:56 UTC 15 September 2012. The data used in this image was corrected for stray light and striping by Stephanie Weiss (Northrup Grumman).

This was the night of a new moon, so the only light in the scene (once the stray light is taken out) is the aurora. (OK, there may be some “air glow” and starlight. But, it doesn’t show up on this brightness scale.)

This aurora was a lot less “active” so it looks more like smooth curtains of light. Although, when you zoom in on the brightest swirl in the upper right corner, you can see it did move 3-5 pixels between scans:

VIIRS DNB image of the aurora australis, taken 18:56 UTC 15 September 2012

VIIRS DNB image of the aurora australis over Antarctica, taken 18:56 UTC 15 September 2012. This image has been zoomed in and rotated relative to the previous image of the same aurora. The data used in this image was corrected for stray light and striping by Stephanie Weiss (Northrup Grumman).

This translates to 4000 to 8000 km h-1, which still counts as “fast” even if it doesn’t count as “very fast”. See, Google was right! Auroras do move anywhere from “fast” to “very fast”. But, now we at least have an estimate to quantify that speed.

And, in case you were wondering, these estimates of the speed of auroras are consistent with earlier observations. According to the book Aurora and Airglow by B. McCormac (1967), the typical speed of auroras is between 0 and 3 km s-1  (up to 10,800 km h-1). So, it appears that VIIRS does give a reasonable estimate about the speed of an aurora. We just happened to catch one “typical” aurora and one “faster than typical” aurora.

Aurora Borealis from the Day-Night Band

On 6 March 2012, a massive solar flare erupted and an associated coronal mass ejection was launched toward Earth. Video of the solar flare from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory can be viewed here. NOAA’s Space Weather Center forecast the coronal mass ejection to reach Earth on 8 March 2012, which you can view here. In another video, Joe Kunchas of the Space Weather Prediction Center talks about the solar flare, coronal mass ejection and possible impacts of the these events – including re-routing of aircraft, the effect on electric power grids and the best conditions to view the aurora. ABC News made it sound like the world was going to end.

Fortunately, the world did not come to an end and Suomi NPP sufferend no significant ill effects from the solar activity. In fact, the Day/Night band on VIIRS caught the aurora borealis, even in the presence of a full moon.

VIIRS DNB image, 9:16 UTC 9 March 2012

VIIRS Day/Night band image of the aurora over Saskatchewan and Manitoba, 9 March 2012

The Day/Night band (DNB) is a visible-wavelength band, centered at 0.7 µm, that is highly sensitive to low levels of light, so that it behaves like a visible channel even at night when the moon is out. As seen in the image, the DNB clearly shows the location of towns and cities at night. Since 8 March 2012 was a full moon, clouds, snow and ice (particularly over Lake Winnipeg) are also visible. The brightest swirl, extending from north of Saskatoon, over Reindeer Lake and into northwestern Manitoba is the aurora borealis.

On its previous orbit, the DNB captured the aurora over Ontario and Quebec, although it is more difficult to distinguish from the underlying clouds.

VIIRS DNB image taken at 7:35 UTC, 9 March 2012

A VIIRS Day/Night band image taken at 7:35 UTC, 9 March 2012

In this image, the bright swirls extending from north-central Ontario, over James Bay and into northern Quebec are elements of the aurora. It is expected that auroras would be more visible in the DNB during new moon events, where the aurora would be the only light source (apart from cities, towns and other point-source human activity).

Many amateur and professional photographers got a good look at the auroras, including this video taken from the shores of Lake Superior and this one taken near Wasilla, Alaska. Imagine if we had two more DNB channels at shorter wavelengths, so that we could capture the amazing colors of the aurora that these videos show.