An Aurora Named Steve There's a new natural phenomenon in town and he's putting on a light show! Scientists are learning more and more about this mysterious new aurora and have even given it a name! So join Mindy and Guy Raz as they explore the who, what, when, where, why, how and wow in the world of Steve!
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An Aurora Named Steve

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An Aurora Named Steve

An Aurora Named Steve

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MINDY THOMAS, HOST:

Hey, guys, Mindy here. Before we start the show, I've got a couple of quick announcements. First, our Wow in the World Pop Up Party for the West Coast completely sold out during last week's presale, so we added another show. We'll be in San Francisco twice on Saturday, September 29, so get your tickets while they're hot. After that, Reggie'll fly me back to the East Coast, where we will have another Wow in the World Pop Up Party in New York City. It's happening on Saturday, October 13. And tickets are going fast. To snag your seats for either of these big live shows with The Pop Ups, visit tinkercast.com/events. That's tinkercast.com/events. That's it. Hope to see you out in the world this fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GOLDEN AGE (WOW IN THE WORLD PODCAST THEME SONG)")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Stay seated. Three, two, one, ignition.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Get ready for an adventure of magnificent proportion.

THE POP UPS: (Singing) I don't know what you've been told, but we're in a golden age - so many discoveries that are jumping off the page. Wow in the world. Wow in the world. Wow in the world. Wow in the world. Wow in the world. Wow in the world. Wow in the world. Wow in the world. Wow in the world.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: With Guy and Mindy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're on our way, Houston.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

All right. Let's see here - I've got my ultra-wide-angle camera lens. I've got my carbon-fiber tripod. I've got my intervalometer. Perfect. I think I've got everything I need for the fireworks display tonight. Now, if I could just...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL)

RAZ: Coming.

THOMAS: Good evening, Guy Raz.

RAZ: Mindy, what's going on? I can barely see you. What are you wearing?

THOMAS: Oh, this old thing - it's my laser light show leotard. Like it?

RAZ: Like it? I can barely see it. It's blinding me.

THOMAS: OK, well, just let me explain it to you then. I've got some spinning disco balls, a few multicolored laser lights and the brake light from your bike.

RAZ: My brake light? What in the...

THOMAS: Check it out. Put these on.

RAZ: Put what on?

THOMAS: These sunglasses I made for you. Well, actually I made them for Grandma G-Force, but turns out you two have the same lens prescription.

RAZ: Thanks, Mindy, I guess.

THOMAS: Oh, you're welcome, Guy Raz.

RAZ: Wow, you weren't kidding, Mindy. You're dressed up like a Christmas tree. But why?

THOMAS: Well, because we're going to a world-famous light show, and I don't want to look out of place. Besides, this leotard has surprisingly deep pockets. I've got everything we need for the show in here. I've got rug, magnifying goggles and...

(SOUNDBITE OF CATS MEOWING)

THOMAS: ...Cats. How did they get in there?

RAZ: Well, it sure looks like the wiring on your jacket could use some work. It's sparking up all over the place.

THOMAS: Yeah, I don't know why. It just does that sometimes. Just give it a second. It'll be fine.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIRES SPARKING)

RAZ: All right. Can we...

THOMAS: Oh, yeah, just a...

(SOUNDBITE OF WIRES SPARKING)

RAZ: Can...

(SOUNDBITE OF WIRES SPARKING)

RAZ: Can we go now?

THOMAS: Sure, just as soon as Reggie gets back from his snack run. He should be back here any second now.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD COOING)

RAZ: Hey, Reggie.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD COOING)

THOMAS: What'd you get, Reg?

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD COOING)

THOMAS: Birdseed again?

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD COOING)

THOMAS: Ooh, buffalo-wing-flavored birdseed. Don't mind if I do.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD COOING)

THOMAS: Hey, Guy Raz, you want some of this birdseed?

RAZ: No, I'm OK. Thanks.

THOMAS: Your loss. Ready to go, Reg?

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD COOING)

THOMAS: OK, hop on board, Guy Raz. And remember to strap in.

RAZ: Strap in? What?

THOMAS: Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Hey, Mindy.

THOMAS: What?

RAZ: Where are we going again?

THOMAS: Sorry, Guy Raz, the sky store is closed at the moment.

RAZ: No, I said...

THOMAS: And we're out of pretzels.

RAZ: No. Mindy, I said...

THOMAS: I don't know, Guy Raz. I can't hear you. Here, put on this headset.

RAZ: OK, is this better? Can you hear me now?

THOMAS: Oh, yeah, much better. Sorry, buddy, it's like I said - no pretzels.

RAZ: No, Mindy, I was asking where the light show was. Where are we going?

THOMAS: Well, the display is being put on by Reggie's friend Gary.

RAZ: Wait, that goose that's been hanging around lately?

THOMAS: Yeah, you know Gary. Anywho, he's a Canadian geese, so...

RAZ: So we're going to Canada?

THOMAS: Northern Alberta, Canada, if you want to be technically correct.

RAZ: Technically correct is the best kind of correct.

THOMAS: In fact, I think we're here. Set her down, Reg.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD COOING)

THOMAS: Thanks, Reg.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD COOING)

RAZ: Ooh, Mindy, it's freezing out here. Ooh, I wish I'd brought a jacket.

THOMAS: Don't worry, Guy Raz. I think I have a blanket for you in this leotard pocket somewhere. Oh, here we go.

RAZ: Mindy, this blanket has a giant picture of your face on it.

THOMAS: Yeah, I crocheted it myself.

RAZ: How thoughtful.

THOMAS: Hey, look, there's Gary. Hey, Gary.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOOSE HONKING)

THOMAS: Gary.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOOSE HONKING)

THOMAS: Hey, nice to see you, too, buddy.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOOSE HONKING AND BIRD COOING)

THOMAS: Ah, isn't it great when you see old friends get together again?

(SOUNDBITE OF GOOSE HONKING AND BIRD COOING)

THOMAS: (Laughter) Good one, guys.

RAZ: What'd they say, Mindy?

THOMAS: No idea.

RAZ: Oh. So hey, Gary, when's the light show supposed to start?

(SOUNDBITE OF GOOSE HONKING)

THOMAS: What? You don't know? Gary, I was told to be here at 8 p.m. sharp, and now...

RAZ: Mindy...

THOMAS: And now I'm just standing here in the middle of nowhere Canada...

RAZ: Mindy...

THOMAS: ...Freezing my buttoon (ph) off - and for what?

RAZ: Mindy, look.

THOMAS: Oh, my - Reggie, Reggie, Reggie, are you seeing this?

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD COOING)

RAZ: Gary, is this what you want to show us?

(SOUNDBITE OF GOOSE HONKING)

THOMAS: What is it? It's so stinking beautiful.

RAZ: I think I know what it is, Mindy. That is the aurora borealis - the greatest light show on Earth.

THOMAS: You can say that again.

RAZ: The greatest light show on Earth.

THOMAS: Just look at all those colors, Guy Raz - pink, blue...

RAZ: Magenta, yellow, violet.

THOMAS: All dancing across the sky.

RAZ: It sure is beautiful, Mindy.

THOMAS: Yeah. What did you call it again?

RAZ: It's called the aurora borealis.

THOMAS: Huh. And how come I haven't seen one of these aurora borealis deals before now?

RAZ: Well, Mindy, these lights are so rare because they usually only occur at the planet's magnetic poles.

THOMAS: So way up at the North Pole and way down in Antarctica.

RAZ: That's right, which means that this aurora - the aurora borealis - can only be seen very far north when you're close to the North Pole.

THOMAS: OK, so like here in northern Canada.

RAZ: Exactly. And because the Earth has two magnetic poles...

THOMAS: The North Pole and the South Pole.

RAZ: ...There's actually another type of aurora that occurs down in the Southern Hemisphere. And that's called the aurora australis.

THOMAS: Wow. So all those people in the Southern Hemisphere, like Australia and New Zealand, are getting their own private light show down there just like us?

RAZ: That's right.

THOMAS: But what could possibly be making all of these amazing colors? Is it flashlights being shone down from outer space by astronauts?

RAZ: No.

THOMAS: Maybe they're caused by really huge disco balls that were placed at the North and South poles.

RAZ: Well, just to be clear, the North and South poles aren't actually poles.

THOMAS: Obviously. No, I know, it must be caused by millions of little, high-altitude glowworms.

RAZ: I'm afraid not, Mindy.

THOMAS: Then what is it?

RAZ: It's the sun.

THOMAS: Guy Raz, it's pitch black out here. How can the sun be creating something like this?

RAZ: Well, it all starts with a...

(SOUNDBITE OF BURP)

THOMAS: Guy Raz, excuse yourself.

RAZ: Excuse me, Mindy.

THOMAS: You could have at least given me a warning that that was coming.

RAZ: But I was trying to make a point.

THOMAS: A point about what - how you had a (sniffing) garlic smoothie for breakfast?

RAZ: No, no, no, Mindy, a point about these auroras - they start with a burp.

THOMAS: A burp?

RAZ: Yeah, a great, big solar belch.

THOMAS: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold the phone there, Guy Raz. You're saying that the sun burped out this light show?

RAZ: Well, yeah, sort of.

THOMAS: But how?

RAZ: Well, you know how the sun provides the Earth with heat and light?

THOMAS: Yeah.

RAZ: Well, that's not the only thing that the sun is giving us.

THOMAS: It isn't?

RAZ: No, the sun also sends out these gases, which have these little particles inside of them called electrons. And these gases that the sun sends out are called solar winds.

THOMAS: Solar wind. So is that like the wind here on Earth?

RAZ: Well, sort of, except instead of carrying things like pollen or plant seeds, solar wind carries around these highly charged particles called electrons.

THOMAS: Timeout.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

THOMAS: An electron is the negatively charged part of an atom, and atoms are the building blocks that make up the world around us. Time in.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

RAZ: But just like the wind here on Earth, these winds can sometimes turn into storms.

THOMAS: Solar storms?

RAZ: That's right. And at the peak of these solar storms, the sun throws out a whole bunch of these electrons in a process called coronal mass ejection, otherwise known as...

(SOUNDBITE OF BURP)

THOMAS: Excuse me. A solar burp.

RAZ: Right. The sun belches out this extra-huge bubble of electrified gas. And then that gas travels through the solar system really fast.

THOMAS: How fast?

RAZ: Well, like 1 million miles an hour fast.

THOMAS: Wow. So the sun - let me see if I remember here - 92 million miles away. Then that belch will arrive here in about - carry the one - 92 hours, which is...

RAZ: About four days.

THOMAS: Right. So what happens when this four-day-old solar burp reaches Earth?

RAZ: Well, as these electrons from the sun's burp enters our atmosphere, they move towards the magnetic poles.

THOMAS: Which are located at the top and bottom of the planet and tell you which way is north on a compass.

RAZ: Exactly. And once they get there, they start to smash into the oxygen and nitrogen atoms that live in our atmosphere.

THOMAS: And by atmosphere, you mean the blanket of gases that surround the planet.

RAZ: Exactly, our invisible atmosphere. And as these electrons crash into the oxygen and nitrogen gases, they create these amazing colors.

THOMAS: That's so wow.

RAZ: So if one of these electrons crashes into an oxygen atom, they'll turn green or red. And if they hit a nitrogen atom, they'll turn blue or purple.

THOMAS: So it's sort of like when you mix two different paint colors together to make a new paint color?

RAZ: Correctamundo (ph).

THOMAS: OK. But what if I wanted to see pink or yellow or white?

RAZ: Well, with those colors, if you want to see them, we actually have to leave our planet and move to the outer solar system.

THOMAS: Wait. You mean other planets have auroras, too?

RAZ: Yes. Pretty amazing, right?

THOMAS: Yeah.

RAZ: And for another planet to have an aurora, it just needs to check two boxes on the aurora checklist. Here, let me show you on my checklist.

THOMAS: You keep an aurora checklist in your pocket?

RAZ: Yeah, you know, just for good measure.

THOMAS: OK. Well, that's awfully convenient time. Let's see here. So first, the planet needs to have an atmosphere. And second, it needs to have a magnetic field.

RAZ: That's right. So planets like Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus...

THOMAS: You said Uranus.

RAZ: ...All have auroras. In fact, in 2016, NASA's Hubble telescope captured a video of an ultraviolet aurora over Jupiter's North Pole.

THOMAS: That's amazing.

RAZ: It's out of this world, Mindy.

THOMAS: So if that's the aurora borealis, then what's the other wave of light out there? Do you see it?

RAZ: Huh. Oh, yeah. It's much lower than the aurora and very purple.

THOMAS: Hmm. I think I've got my magnifying goggles somewhere. OK. Let me just see here. You know, it looks like one long, giant, purple hand with a bunch of green fingers sticking out of it. (Gasping) Guy Raz, I know what this is.

RAZ: What?

THOMAS: It's STEVE.

RAZ: Steve?

THOMAS: Yeah, STEVE. Quick, get your camera out.

RAZ: My camera?

THOMAS: Yeah. You brought your camera to the light show, right?

RAZ: Yeah.

THOMAS: Well, get it out. It's time for us to do some citizen science.

RAZ: Steve? Citizen science? Mindy, what are you talking about?

THOMAS: I just heard about this. So STEVE is a new type of aurora that researchers discovered earlier this year thanks to citizen scientists. A guy in my citizen scientists club was talking about it just last week.

RAZ: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down there. Let's break this down. Steve is a new type of aurora?

THOMAS: Yeah. So STEVE is an acronym that stands for strong thermal emission velocity enhancement.

RAZ: S-T-E-V-E - STEVE. I got it.

THOMAS: And the only reason these researchers were able to understand the inner workings of this natural phenomenon was by analyzing the photographs of everyday citizen scientists like you or me.

RAZ: And citizen scientists are just everyday people like us, people who collect data for big science projects, right?

THOMAS: Exactly. Like I said, one of the citizen scientists in my club was talking about STEVE last week.

RAZ: Wait a minute, Mindy. You have your own citizen science club?

THOMAS: Oh, yeah. We're the Citizen Science Science Solvers, or CSSS, or ksss (ph). (Gasping) Guy Raz, you should join us. You would love it.

RAZ: Yeah, well, what kind of stuff do you do?

THOMAS: Oh, we do all kinds of fun stuff like count the number of endangered bugs in the neighborhood or track the stars as they make their way across the night sky. One time we even found out how they got the cookies into the cookies and cream ice cream.

RAZ: And so this natural phenomenon...

THOMAS: STEVE.

RAZ: ...STEVE - STEVE was discovered by a group of citizen scientists?

THOMAS: Yep, with the help of a few researchers.

RAZ: So how did it work?

THOMAS: So Dr. Elizabeth MacDonald, this scientist from NASA's Goddard flight center - she set up a website where citizen scientist photographers could upload their photos of STEVE to an international database.

RAZ: Which is basically an online library.

THOMAS: Right. Then Dr. MacDonald and her team joined forces with Dr. Eric Donovan, a professor at the University of Calgary who had also been studying the phenomenon for a bunch of years and had also been collecting lots and lots of photos of STEVE.

RAZ: Right.

THOMAS: And so by analyzing - or studying - these photos and then combining that data with information they were able to collect from European satellites in the area, Dr. MacDonald and her team were able to learn that STEVE is related to a phenomenon known as subauroral ion drift.

RAZ: What?

THOMAS: Subauroral ion drift. Hahahaha. Or SAID for short.

RAZ: S-A-I-D - SAID. Got it.

THOMAS: These SAIDs happen when the magnetic fields...

RAZ: Which, again, are the magnetic forces that are found at the top and the bottom of our planet.

THOMAS: And when these magnetic fields rearrange themselves and there are still these highly charged particles floating around in the atmosphere, the charged particles just scatter all over the place.

RAZ: Kind of like a wet dog shaking itself off.

THOMAS: Exact-oritos. And when they get shaken off, they crash into particles a lot lower than where they usually collide in the aurora borealis.

RAZ: That's fascinating, Mindy. And to think that all of that was discovered thanks to everyday people with an interest in science.

THOMAS: I know. But they're not done yet.

RAZ: They aren't?

THOMAS: Nope. Scientists still want to know a lot more about STEVE.

RAZ: Well, what more is there to learn?

THOMAS: Well, SAIDs happen pretty often, but they're usually invisible to the human eye. So the next step in Dr. MacDonald's research will be to explain the vivid colors that we started to see recently.

RAZ: And the only way to do that is with...

THOMAS: More photos. So get out your camera, Guy Raz.

RAZ: All right, Mindy. You know what I always say.

THOMAS: Wipe your feet before you...

RAZ: Anything for science.

THOMAS: Oh, anything for science. All right. Now I'm going to get STEVE warmed up while you get the camera ready, OK?

RAZ: All right.

THOMAS: Hey, STEVE. Want to take some pictures? Yeah? You up for a little photo shoot? Right. Ready, Guy Raz?

RAZ: Ready.

THOMAS: Oh, yeah. STEVE, work it.

RAZ: Yeah. Let me see the red. Oh, very nice. Now some purple.

THOMAS: Oh, I love it. Look at those colors. Come on. Shake what the sun gave you.

RAZ: Ah, beautiful, beautiful.

THOMAS: Yeah, that's it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: WOW IN THE WORLD will be right back. Grown-ups, this message is for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: That's it. Back to the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GOLDEN AGE (WOW IN THE WORLD PODCAST THEME SONG)")

THE POP UPS: (Singing) Wow in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIALING PHONE)

THOMAS: Hi. Thanks for calling WOW IN THE WORLD. After the beep, get ready to record.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

KENNEDY AND LILAH: Hi, Mindy and Guy Raz.

KENNEDY: My name is Kennedy (ph), and I am 9 years old.

LILAH: And my name is Lilah (ph), and I am 7 years old. We live in Alaska.

KENNEDY: And our wow is that a cat was the mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska, for 15 years.

KENNEDY AND LILAH: We love your show. Bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

SCARLETT: Hi, Mindy and Guy Raz. My name is Scarlett (ph), and I am 7 years old. I live in Seattle, Wash. My wow in the world is that female narwhals can have one tusk, and male narwhals can sometimes have two tusks. Bye, Mindy and Guy Raz. Love your show.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

LUCY: Hi. My name's Lucy (ph). I live in Florida. My wow in the world is that jellyfish poop and eat out of the same hole.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

NAYO: Hi. My name is Nayo (ph), and I'm 6 years old. And I live in Revelstoke, B.C. And my wow in the world is that there may be life on Mars.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

NOAM: Hi. My name is Noam (ph). I'm 6 years old, and I'm from New York City. My wow in the world is that when cobras are threatened, they puff up to look bigger.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

SARAH MARGARET: Hey, Mindy and Guy Raz. My name is Sarah Margaret (ph), and I'm 12 and live in Birmingham, Ala. My wow in the world is that in the Supreme Court building, at the top level, they have a basketball court, and they call it the highest court in all the land. Bye. Love your show.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

ADDIE: Hi. My name's Addie (ph). I'm 9 years old, and I live in Pacifica, Calif. My wow is that the moon controls the tides of the ocean. It's so cool. Bye, Mindy and Guy Raz. I love your show.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

SYDNEY: Hi, Guy Raz and Mindy. My name is Sydney (ph) from Brooklyn, N.Y. My wow in the world is that red pandas can chew and eat bamboo even though it has poison in it. It's so cool. Bye. I love your show.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

ABBY: Hi. My name's Abby (ph). I am 6 years old. And I live in Massachusetts. I recorded a song. (Singing) Wow in the world. Wow in the world. Rainbows are so good. Wow in the world. Rainbows are so good.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Thank you. Bye.

ABBY: Thank you. Bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: End of messages.

THOMAS: Hey, everyone. Thank you so much for joining us this week on WOW IN THE WORLD.

RAZ: And if you want to keep the conversation going, check out some of the questions we've posted on this episode at our website wowintheworld.com.

THOMAS: And, grown-ups, there you can find more details on how your kids can become part of the World Organization of Wowzers. Lots of cool perks - exclusive T-shirts, autographed pictures of us and a bunch of other cool stuff - wowintheworld.com.

RAZ: Our show is produced by Jed Anderson...

THOMAS: Say hello, Jed.

JED ANDERSON, BYLINE: Yello.

RAZ: ...With help from Thomas van Kalken, Chelsea Ursin and Jessica Boddy. Meredith Halpern-Ranzer is the big boss.

THOMAS: Our theme song was composed and performed by The Pop Ups. You can find more of their awesome, all-ages music at thepopups.com.

RAZ: And, parents and teachers, if you want to send us an email, our address is hello@wowintheworld.com.

THOMAS: Grown-ups, you can also find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at @wowintheworld.

RAZ: And if you want to be featured at the end of the show, call us up and tell us your wow in the world.

THOMAS: Our phone number is 1-888-7-WOW-WOW. That's 1-888-7-WOW-WOW.

RAZ: And, parents, if you want to upload any photos or videos or messages to us, please visit wowintheworld.com and find a link where you can do just that.

THOMAS: And if you haven't already done so, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts or however you get your podcast. Leave us a few stars and a review and be sure to tell a friend about the show. Until next time, keep on wowing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GOLDEN AGE (WOW IN THE WORLD PODCAST THEME SONG)")

THE POP UPS: (Singing) Wow in the world. Wow in the world. Wow in the world. Wow in the world. Wow in the world.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: WOW IN THE WORLD was made by Tinkercast and sent to you by NPR.

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