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Scientists By Night: Finding A Mystery In An Aurora

Chasing Steve captures the story of an intrepid group of Canadian aurora photographers who discover a celestial phenomenon in the night sky and are enlisted as citizen scientists. Vancouver filmmakers Jess Fraser and Leah Mallen documents how a group of aurora chasers accidentally captured this mystery in the night sky.

When Leah and I headed to Alberta to film a documentary about aurora chasers who had discovered a new phenomenon in the night sky, we didn’t know what to expect. We imagined they would be passionate photographers who were similar to each other—aren’t all people who get up in the middle of the night in sub-freezing temperatures cut from the same cloth? They weren’t. A widowed mother of 5 children who home-schooled her kids, a chemical engineer who worked in the oil patch, a grandmother who had retired from an IT career, an immigrant from Cambodia who has spent more time in the wilds of western Canada than most locals have in a lifetime—each aurora chaser brought something unique to their membership. 

For years, the Alberta Aurora Chasers—an intrepid group of sky gazers scattered across western Canada—has documented a curious ribbon of purple and green light in the night skies when photographing the Northern Lights. Extending for hundreds to thousands of kilometers and appearing for 20 minutes to an hour at a time, this mysterious celestial phenomenon might be a proton arc, the chasers speculated. When a NASA space scientist and space physicist at the University of Calgary couldn’t scientifically identify what was captured in the photos, the aurora chasers officially became citizen scientists and a new partnership between these researchers and photographers was born. Defying scientific convention, the Alberta Aurora Chasers were invited to name their discovery, which they affectionately called “Steve.” This unconventional name stuck and it struck a chord with people from around the world. Their photos, geographical data and time and date information continue to support scientists racing to definitively explain this mystery in the night sky. 

Over the course of a year, the Alberta Aurora Chasers became citizen science heroes. Their invitation to partner with  NASA points to a new way that academic institutions and organizations can work with ‘everyday’ people in pursuit of scientific engagement. Worldwide, academics are adopting this new model and recognizing the legion of citizen scientists ready and willing to support scientific discovery and make a difference to all lives, particularly as we face immense changes to the planet. 

Filmmakers look for humanity in their subject matter—for an emotional arc and shared experience that offer the audience the opportunity to see aspects of themselves in the greater story. As Leah and I filmed and produced Chasing Steve we learned that it’s more than the beauty and wonder of the night sky that drive people to engage with it; it’s also, and perhaps more significantly, the opportunity to meaningfully partner in something greater than their own experience and impact humanity as a whole. The experience left us truly inspired. 

Watch Chasing Steve from the comfort of your own home.

You read about it, now watch the exciting and heart-warming tale of what happened when the word got out, and the world met ‘STEVE’.