We present the first multi-event study of the spatial and temporal structuring of the aurora to provide statistical evidence of the near-Earth plasma instability which causes the substorm onset arc. Using data from ground-based auroral imagers, we study repeatable signatures of along-arc auroral beads, which are thought to represent the ionospheric projection of magnetospheric instability in the near-Earth plasma sheet. We show that the growth and spatial scales of these wave-like fluctuations are similar across multiple events, indicating that each sudden auroral brightening has a common explanation. We find statistically that growth rates for auroral beads peak at low wavenumber with the most unstable spatial scales mapping to an azimuthal wavelength lambda$1700 ? 2500 km in the equatorial magnetosphere at around 9-12 RE. We compare growth rates and spatial scales with a range of theoretical predictions of magnetotail instabilities, including the cross-field current instability and the shear-flow ballooning instability. We conclude that, although the cross-field current instability can generate similar magnitude of growth rates, the range of unstable wavenumbers indicates that the shear-flow ballooning instability is the most likely explanation for our observations.