The NASA-led Planeterrella shows how the northern lights work, but the device's display isn't exactly like the real aurora. Earth's auroral displays are typically green because of how charged particles react with oxygen molecules in the atmosphere.
The glowing colors and dancing lines of the northern lights could soon appear inside an educational institution near you.
A small device called Planeterrella bottles all the ingredients needed for the naturally occurring light show — a magnetic field, a sphere and charged particles — and creates a mini-version of the aurora inside.
The concept, which was imported from Europe, will be on display at the Virginia Air and Space Center in a few months. Another device will travel from classroom to classroom. [See video of aurora lights in "virtual real time"]
In addition to offering an auroral display, Planeterrella can also, in limited form, show the differences between aurora on different planets.
Auroras are common on planets with magnetic fields, such as Earth. Particles streaming from the sun hit Earth's magnetic field lines and travel to the magnetic north and south poles. As the particles brush with Earth's upper atmosphere, they excite atoms of nitrogen, oxygen and other gases and cause the lights.
These dancing lights have also been spotted on other planets in the solar system, including Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Other processes could also contribute to the aurora. On Saturn, for example, some researchers say a rain of particles from its ring could help light up the skies.
Planeterrella works to capture this process in miniature. Its European creators drew inspiration from a 19th-century experiment called Terrella, which showed how charged particles glow when they hit a magnetic field. Planeterrella includes several spheres to better re-create how auroras wrap around Earth's poles.
PhotoBlog: Glowing reports from the aurora zone
The machine is intended to illustrate the differences in how auroras are generated on different planets, lead researcher Guillaume Gronoff said in a statement.
"The Planeterrella allows us to create analogies with existing processes, like the aurora at Mars, which do not have a global magnetic field, but several localized magnetic fields, or Uranus and Neptune, when the magnetic fields of those planets point towards the sun,” said Gronoff, who is a research scientist at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia.
NASA researcher Guillaume Gronoff (left) examines Planeterrella with intern Sam Walker. The device re-creates the northern lights from Earth and other planets.
The experiment is not a perfect re-creation, however, as it does not show the whole picture.
"For example, there are various gases on each planet that can create different color effects within auroras," NASA scientists said in a statement. "Gronoff is planning on incorporating this variable using a few extra magnets and some carbon dioxide to simulate the aurora at Mars."
Planeterrella's creator was Gronoff's Ph.D. adviser, Jean Lilensten. Lilsensten is from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and the Institut de Planetologie et d'Astrophysique de Grenoble in France.
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First published August 30 2013, 4:29 PM