©Planeterrella The polar light simulator
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Hasselt Plenetterrella in Belgium

2015 was the international year of light. Fascinated by this enthralling physical phenomenon, our department wanted to astonish visitors of that year’s Science Day by showing them a few ‘magical’ light experiments and in particular, the mysterious ‘aurora’. All of this on a non-polar latitude, i.e. Belgium.

We had already built a Tesla Coil in the past (of course in miniature), and also found some smaller experiments implicating to the wonderful theory behind light.
But we wanted something bigger, something much bigger..

During one of our brainstorming sessions, Prof. Dr. Jean Manca remembered a certain device he had seen before on one of his visits to BIRA-Ukkel, which simulated the polar light. After some research, we found that this specific device was called a ‘Terrella’ and that it was first developed by one Kristian Olaf Birkeland, a Norwegian physicist who managed to interpret and explain the polar light for the very first time in the history of science.

And so our search had only begun. Very few information was available online on how exactly to construct such a Terrella, and considering our deadline, we couldn’t permit ourselves to spend too much time on threshing out the original construction plans of Birkeland.

Luckily, we managed to get in touch with research director and astrophysicist Jean Lilensten of the IPAG (Institut de Planètologie et d’Astrophysique de Grénoble), who enthusiastically wanted to help with the development of our own Planeterrella. The IPAG, and mr. Jean Lilensten in particular, had devoted a massive time on developing and optimizing Birkeland’s ‘opus magnum’. As their design slightly differed from Birkeland’s Terrella, they renamed the device to ‘Planeterrella’.

Finally, we found someone who had the knowhow and eagerness to guide us through our journey of constructing our own Planeterrella!

After we received construction plans, blue prints, pictures and directions, we were ready to commence constructing. The person in charge of this project was Ing. Michel De Roeve, who managed to build a working Planeterrella, even within that short period before the deadline.

From that moment, we could simulate the polar light at our own university, whereby we enchanted many students and staff members.
Taking their amazed reactions as an authorization to reveal our Planeterrella, we introduced it to the big crowd on the National Science Day of 2015. We created a winter wonderland, where visitors were guided by reindeers, a snowman or ice princess through their own journey to the magical auroras. And despite the iciness of its natural location, the aurora was warmly welcomed by young and old!

Institut de Planétologie et d'Astrophysique de Grenoble (IPAG)