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Across his years of studying auroras, University of Calgary physicist Eric Donovan had periodically seen pictures and data showing something strange: a curve of purple light swiping across the sky, linear green features glowing beneath. It was atypical, but he didn’t give it too much thought. “I put it into some bucket that I understood,” he says.

That changed when he found himself at a bar with a group of amateur aurora photographers after a science talk. Over beers, members of the Alberta Aurora Chasers were showing off their pictures. Following a discussion, one attendee showed him a shot of the same sort of purple arc that Donovan had noticed over the years. Images of it look otherworldly—the sort of thing one might see in an alien planet’s sky.

Looking at the photograph, Donovan realized the lights actually lived in an “unidentified” bucket that he didn’t understand. They also didn’t have a name. So he and the aurora chasers started calling the phenomenon Steve, after a name a group of animals give to shrubbery they don’t understand in the children’s movie Over the Hedge.

Soon Donovan and his scientific colleagues teamed up with the aurora chasers to try to track down more apparitions of Steve—to observe it, attempt to understand the mechanism behind it and change an unknown into a known.

That’s also the thrust of a new NASA project that aims to study UFOs. The narrative of Steve—people notice something strange in the heavens above and dig deeper—could someday play out similarly in the space agency’s efforts to learn more about unidentified things in Earth’s atmosphere.

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