The Planeterrella: an amazing polar light simulator

Planetterella logo
Logo courtesy of CNRS and University Joseph Fourier, Grenoble.

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 a myriad of myths and legends. But it was only a hundred year 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 University of Leicester has a modern day reproduction of this experiment, called the Planeterrella, and would like to give the pupils at your school the chance to see the auroral lights themselves. The Planeterrella consists of a small vacuum chamber within which we recreate auroral lights around magnetic spheres, and visualise cosmic phenomena.

Leicester's planeterrella shown on Stargazing Live


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 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. Identical planeterrellas have won international public outreach awards and ours will be presented the Royal Society Summer Exhibit in July 2011.

You can read more about the Planeterrella at

In this video Dr Gabrielle Provan of the University of Leicester Physics & Astronomy department demonstrates how Aurora Borealis (or the Northern Lights) are created. Using a Planeterrella designed by CNRS scientist Jean Lilensten she recreates Kristian Birkeland's 100+ year old experiment. Showing how charged particles within solar winds coming from our Sun collide with atoms in the Earth's atmosphere to create a natural light display.

What age range is the Planetterella suitable for?
The demonstration is suitable for audiences from Key Stage 2 to 'A' level

How long does the demonstration last?

The presentation can be tailored to last from between 30-60 minutes

How far will you travel to visit a school?

We cover an area up to 1 hour's drive from the University of Leicester

What do you require in order to give the demonstration?
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.

Booking Information

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

Dr Gabby Provan

Department of Physics & Astronomy,

University of Leicester

University Road

Leicester LE1 7RH


Telephone: 0116 252 2083


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Contact Details

Tel.: +44 (0)116 252 3506
Fax: +44 (0)116 252 2770

Department of Physics & Astronomy,
University of Leicester,
University Road,
Leicester, LE1 7RH,
United Kingdom.


For current students and general enquiries within UoL:

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