Chris Ratzlaff, a member of the Alberta Aurora Chasers and discoverer of the sky phenomenon known as “STEVE,” which was featured on a $20 silver coin issued by the Royal Canadian Mint this year, was recently honoured by the U.S.-based National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
While photographing the aurora borealis in 2014, Ratzlaff unknowingly captured a distinct purple streak.
“We take very careful measurements when we’re taking out photos and because of the precision of our observations that contributed to the scientific discovery involved in STEVE,” Ratzlaff told CTV News this August.
SHARING ‘STEVE’ WITH RESEARCHERS
Unaware of the “STEVE” phenomenon – “strong thermal emission velocity enhancement” – Ratzlaff showed the photos to a scientist at the University of Calgary in 2016. A research team then found the purple streak in its own data to determine “STEVE” is caused by burning gas upwards of 500 kilometres in altitude—not the northern lights.
In 2018, the team wrote 10 papers on the phenomenon, which has since attracted the likes of NASA scientists.
This August, Ratzlaff and other researchers received an Exceptional Achievement for Science Award for “outstanding discovery and characterization of STEVE, a new type of auroral phenomena, as a groundbreaking example of citizen science.”
“Many times while camping I’ve observed the aurora borealis. It is so much more impactful on a quiet lake with a campfire,” said Tony Bianco, designer of the “STEVE” coin that’s based on Ratzlaff’s discovery.
“‘Steve’ is a rare sight and very unique in its presentation, with strange green colours often accompanying it. I wanted to make it the star in an already astonishing show.”