What Happens When The Sun Throws A Glitter Bomb?

Liz MacDonald, a space plasma physicist at NASA, talks about the Aurorasaurus citizen science project and the discovery of the auroral effect called “Steve.”

Vocabulary: aurora, citizen science, atmosphere, latitude, magnetic field

Next Generation Science Standards: ESS1.A: The Universe and Its Stars, PS4.B: Electromagnetic Radiation, and CC1: Patterns. Can be used to build towards HS-ESS1–1.


Aurora Borealis, Iceland. Credit: Patrick Shyu via Flickr

Occasionally, people living in the upper latitudes get a celestial treat: the aurora (also known as the northern or southern lights, depending on your hemisphere). The dazzling displays of green, pink, and blue arise from complicated interactions among charged particles from the sun carried by solar winds, the Earth’s magnetic field, and gas molecules in the upper atmosphere. Liz MacDonald, a space plasma physicist at NASA, says that auroral research is hampered by a lack of data. She founded the Aurorasaurus project to connect citizen science observations of the aurora with people in the space weather research community. Recently, amateur observers tagged a previously undescribed type of auroral effect that appeared as a purplish streak. For now, they’re calling the streak “Steve.”

Audio Excerpt “What Happens When The Sun Throws A Glitter Bomb?,” May 5, 2017. (Original Segment)

Print this segment transcript.

This is a short time-lapse From Porteau Cove, British Columbia, on Sunday May 8th, 2016. This time-lapse was created by using just over 600 photos from a few different angles. The Arc that is visible in the beginning of this time-lapse is the newly discovered Aurora phenomenon called “Steve”. Credit: Vanexus Photography


  • Why do you think citizen science projects like Aurorasaurus are becoming more common?
  • Why is it important that the observations of citizen scientists are shared with and verified by scientists like Liz MacDonald?
  • Without using the phrase glitter bomb and using a maximum of 140 characters, explain how an Aurora is formed.
  • How might analyzing aurora and aurora phenomena help us understand more about the sun?
  • What are two questions you have about Steve or auroras in general?
Photos of Steve collected by Aurorasaurus.

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