Throughout the history of Science there have been many occasions in which amateur scientists have provided the initial discovery or key data related to some new phenomenon. An example of this has occurred recently in Canada and revolves around the discovery of a new type of Aurora.
It all started when University of Calgary Professor Eric Donovan met with a group of amateur aurora scientists who called themselves the ‘Alberta Aurora Chasers’. The aurora chasers believed that they had managed to capture some photographs of a proton aurora, a form of the northern lights produced by protons in the solar wind rather than electrons which produce the well known aurora. Now Professor Donovan was skeptical, protons striking out atmosphere are so quickly slowed down to where they acquire electrons and become neutral atoms that a proton aurora is basically nonexistent.
Still, when Professor Donovan looked at the photos he could see that this was a type of aurora never noticed before. I didn’t say never seen before, because it turns out that this phenomena is actually fairly common but it is usually not noticed because of the more common aurora. The most obvious difference between the two types of aurora is that the better know type are seen as broad, horizontal sheets while this new type appears as a thin vertical pillar or as a complete arc across the sky. See picture below.
Looking at the photo you might ask, how could this go unnoticed but remember the pictures have been digitally enhanced to show the new type of Aurora rather than the more normal kind. In fact the new type is quite faint and only lasts for a few seconds.
The amateur scientists have given the new type of Aurora a temporary name. It’s called Steve after a scene in the movie “Over the Hedge” where an unknown entity is christened Steve because one character says “I’d be a lot less afraid of it if I knew what it was called.” to which another answers “Let’s call it Steve”.
With the help of both the Alberta Aurora Chasers and NASA Satellites scientists have already learned a good bit about Steve. So far we know that Steve is a strip of ionized gas about 20 kilometers wide and can be thousands of kilometers long. The strip of ionized gas has also be measured at move at a velocity in excess of 5 kilometers per second.
The causes of this new type of Aurora are presently unknown. in fact we’re not even certain that it is caused by the solar wind as the common aurora is. Professor Donovan hopes that in the coming months enough will be learned about Steve to publish a paper detailing it’s causes. Maybe then he’ll give the new aurora a more prestigious name, or maybe it will just keep on being Steve.
This discovery highlights the importance of ordinary people getting involved in science and how anyone can contribute. Amateur astronomers measure the light curves of variable stars. Amateur naturalists conduct bird counts. The list of ways you can become an amateur scientist is so long that I’m going to have to make it another post.