When British photographer Stephen Pemberton heard reports that the Aurora borealis would be visible in his area, he quickly gathered his camera equipment and headed out the door. He made his way to his favorite location in Northumberland—the Howick Bath House. Free from light pollution, the structure makes for an interesting setting. Once he arrived, he was pleased to see that the Aurora was active, but he certainly didn't expect what came next.
“Once there, I got my camera on the tripod, focused on a distant star, and took an image of the bathhouse lit up by the Aurora. At the same time, there was a bright white trail directly overhead crossing the Milky Way,” he tells My Modern Met. “I'd never seen this before and almost dismissed it as trails from a passing aircraft. Curiosity got the better of me, so I pointed the camera toward the streak and let it take a 10-second exposure. Then it happened!”
“On the back of the camera, there was a vivid red and white stripe running the length of the image. It absolutely took my breath away. I knew immediately this was incredibly rare to see, and it was beautiful. The contrast from one side of the line to the other made it look as though there were two skies separated by a tear in the sky. I'm incredibly lucky to have captured the image, and it's hands down the best photo I've ever taken.”
So, what exactly was the ribbon in the sky that Pemberton photographed? Named STEVE, this optical phenomenon was only named in 2016, though aurora watchers have noted it for centuries. STEVE stands for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement, and it is caused by a wide ribbon of hot plasma that flows rapidly through the sky. It often has a pink or green coloration.
While it's not unusual to see the phenomenon, it is quite rare to photograph STEVE together with the Aurora, the Milky Way, and a shooting star thrown in for good measure. Pemberton's ability to capture the scene is remarkable. While he's been actively practicing photography for 25 years, he just took up astrophotography three years ago.
It's his hope that through these images, people realize that they can find incredible scenes like these right in their own backyards. As for Pemberton, he'll continue exploring Northumberland with the hope to one day transition to full-time photography with the ability to lead photography tours showing the beauty of the area.