Auroras Recreated In The Lab
August 22, 2013

Planeterrella Device Creates Northern Lights In The Lab

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

One of the most beautiful sights in North America is the Aurora Borealis, the famous Northern Lights. A team of scientists have discovered the tools necessary to recreate the colorful light show, and have brought the Northern Lights to a lab at NASA’s Langley Research Center.

A device called the Planeterrella combines all the necessary ingredients - a magnetic field, charged particles, and a sphere – to create the simulation of the light show.

“It recreates the atmosphere of the Earth at 80 km in altitude when an aurora is occurring. The aurora is created when particles, originally from the sun, precipitate into the atmosphere,” explained Guillaume Gronoff, a research scientist at NASA Langley who lead the creation of Planeterrella.

The Planeterrella machine is a spinoff of a 19th century experiment called the Terrella, according to Gronoff. The Terrella was the first to demonstrate the glowing result of electrically charged particles mixing with a magnetic field. The research team upgraded the Terrella by adding several spheres, which allowed them to recreate the auroral ovals that occur on Earth and several other planets.

“For example, we can show the reaction when Io, the satellite of Jupiter, sends particles to Jupiter. We can also simulate the aurora at Neptune and Uranus, when their magnetic fields are directly pointing towards the sun,” said Gronoff.

Approximately ten Planeterrella devices are in Europe currently. The first was created by Gronoff’s PhD advisor, Dr. Jean Lilensten, from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and the Institut de Planetologie et d'Astrophysique de Grenoble (IPAG) in France. The device at Langley is one of the first in the US. It was made possible by cooperation between the Virginia Air and Space Center (VASC), NASA Langley’s Science Directorate and the Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) program.

Studying the relationship between Earth and the sun, and the auroras, are key areas of focus for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, but the Planeterrella machine is primarily used for demonstrating to others how each variable interacts to create an aurora.

“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,” explained Gronoff.

The Planeterrella experiment is only an illustration, according to Gronoff. The phenomena occurring in the magnetospheres of planets are much more complex. Different color effects within the auroras, for example, are caused by various gases on each planet. Using a few extra magnets and some carbon dioxide, Gronoff plans to simulate the aurora at Mars.

The vibrant demonstration of the Planeterrella will be displayed at the VASC museum in a few months. The team will also create a second machine to demonstrate in local classrooms.

“The Planeterrella can help teach students about solar wind, how electrically charged particles follow the magnetic field and the exciting space missions NASA is launching to space to study these processes,” said Gronoff.