NASA "Sonification" project lets us hear the cosmos
We’re used to seeing the output of telescopes as images, but what if we could translate that data into sound? A new “Sonification” project from NASA's Chandra X-ray Center has done just that, letting us hear the center of the Milky Way, the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A, and the Pillars of Creation nebula.
Some of the most beautiful images of the cosmos aren’t true photographs – they’re often composite images of different elements or types of light, such as visible, ultraviolet and infrared, assigned different colors to make it easier to visualize the structure.
So why not assign those elements or light to sounds instead? That’s the goal of the new project, and Chandra has now dropped three examples made from some of the most recognizable features in the sky.
The first is the galactic center, an area that’s packed with stars, dust, gas and of course, a supermassive black hole. This image is made using X-ray, visible and infrared light, from measurements gathered by the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes. Since the three telescopes capture different signals, they’re each assigned different “instruments” in the music.
The image is translated into sound from left to right, with the brightness of the light controlling volume, and the pitch controlled by how high up on the image an object is. The end result is a jingling of chimes for the stars, a drawn-out drone for the long dust clouds, and it all builds to a crescendo towards the end, around the bright smudge of light where the supermassive black hole is.
The Cassiopeia A sonification works differently. This breathtaking image shows a supernova remnant, a circular patch of swirling clouds expanding outwards like a slow motion explosion. Here, different elements are highlighted in different colors – red for silicon, yellow for sulfur, green for calcium and purple for iron – and these are assigned to different sounds. Rather than left to right, the sounds play as the “cursors” move outwards from the center.
And finally there’s the Pillars of Creation, one of the most iconic locations in the galaxy. Like the galactic center piece, this one plays from left to right, with the visible light and X-rays complementing each other with two different melodies. This sonification sounds much more alien, beginning with trills and whistles of stars before reaching the clouds of the nebula, where it takes on an eerie howl like the wind.
The Chandra sonification project is an intriguing one, and hopefully this isn’t the last we’ve heard of it. Have a listen in the video below.
Source: Chandra X-ray Observatory