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Rare student-built device displays celestial phenomenons on miniature scale

What's the coolest thing you made in school? A volcano spewing a lava compound comprised of baking soda and vinegar? A scaled-down version of a city with futuristic features? A device that mimics some of the sky's most exquisite celestial phenomenons?

Unless you're Rick Beckley, Ryan Hood, or Zachary Luppen, odds are your crowning educational achievement isn't the last one.

With the guidance of Scott Baalrud, an assistant professor in physics and astronomy at the University of Iowa, the three Hawkeye students built Iowa's first and only planeterrella.

The device replicates space by removing oxygen within the bell jar and allowing electrons to flow freely to complete circuits, thereby creating -- on a smaller scale -- some of the sky's greatest visuals, including the auroras.

A focal point of the Old Capitol Museum's Hawkeyes in Space exhibit, the planeterrella is one of approximately 40 in the world, and roughly 10 in the United States.

Cornelia Lang, an associate professor in physics and astronomy, said the device is the first automated planeterrella, allowing viewers to learn about plasma in an interactive manner.

"The role of the planeterrella is to try to give the viewers a real physical sense of what a plasma is and how plasmas are generated constantly around the earth and many of the other planets in the solar system," said Lang.

One of the students responsible for the self-sufficiency of Iowa's planeterrella, Zachary Luppen said the device can create intrigue regardless of age.

"We can talk about sort of auroral physics and how the earth is influenced by say a solar flare, but when it comes down to actually seeing this plasma, we can now illustrate it right up close to people of all ages," said Luppen.

Lang said she believes the exhibit, which chronicles Iowa's influence on space exploration (past, present and future), may generate interest for the next generation of science minds.

"We really hope to inspire young people and to also let them know that they have a role to play in these missions and it takes literally hundreds of people to work on things that fly in space," said Lang, gesturing to the pictures of crews adorning the walls on the bottom floor of the museum.

The University's Old Capitol Museum will play host to a talk about the planeterrella led by Baalrud on February 16 at 6:30 p.m. The talk is free to the public.

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