School of Physics and Astronomy

The Planeterrella: an amazing polar light simulator

The University of Leicester is home to a Planeterrella - a small vacuum chamber within which we recreate auroral lights around magnetic spheres, and visualise cosmic phenomena.

About the Planeterrella

The Northern Lights are nature’s very own beautiful and dynamic light show, captivating all who gaze upon them. Since the beginning of time, people have tried to understand what causes the aurorae, resulting in myriad myths and legends. But it was only a hundred years ago, when Norwegian physicist Kristian Birkeland led a daring expedition to the top of an arctic mountain, that scientists realised that the aurorae are created by charged particles from the Sun travelling along the Earth’s magnetic field lines and exciting our atmosphere. Back in his laboratory in Oslo, Birkeland proved his hypothesis to the world with a famous experiment where he created auroral light around magnetic spheres inside a small vacuum chamber.

The complexity and natural beauty of the aurora has inspired many literary and artistic works and can easily form the basis of a cross-curriculum project spanning science, literacy, art and design technology.

The Planeterrella - Polar Light Simulation

Using a Planeterrella designed by CNRS scientist Jean Lilensten, Dr Gabrielle Provan of the University of Leicester's Department of Physics and Astronomy demonstrates how the Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights) is created.

The Northern Lights in your classroom

The Planeterrella is available for free demonstrations at your school.

Scientists from the University of Leicester will bring the Planeterrella to your school, and exhibit it together with a presentation on auroral lights, and Birkeland’s heroic expedition to the arctic. There will also be inspiring hand-held magnetic field demonstrations for the audience to handle.

The demonstration is suitable for audiences from Key Stage 2 to A-level, and can be tailored to last from between 30-60 minutes. We cover an area up to 1 hour's drive from the University of Leicester.

The planetterella is run from an ordinary 240 volt power supply. We need access to two standard 3-pin electrical sockets in the room. It would help if the room itself could be darkened so that the delicate emissions can be seen. The dimensions of the vacuum chamber are 50 cm in width and 60 cm in height.

For further information or to book the Planeterrella, please contact:

Dr Gabby Provan
Department of Physics and Astronomy
University of Leicester
University Road

0116 252 2083

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