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Jingle, Pluck, and Hum: Sounds from Space

  • Since 2020, a "sonification" project has transformed astronomical data from some of the world's most powerful telescopes into sound.

  • Three new objects — a star-forming region, a supernova remnant, and a black hole at the center of a galaxy — are being released.

  • Each sonification has its own technique to translate the astronomical data into sound.

  • The sonification project is led by staff of NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Universe of Learning.

Space is mostly quiet. Data collected by telescopes is most often turned into silent charts, plots, and images. A "sonification" project led by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and NASA's Universe of Learning program transforms otherwise inaudible data from some of the world's most powerful telescopes into sound. This effort makes it possible to experience data from cosmic sources with a different sense: hearing.

The latest installment of this sonification project features a region where stars are forming (Westerlund 2), the debris field left behind by an exploded star (Tycho's supernova remnant), and the region around arguably the most famous black hole (Messier 87). Each sonification has its own technique to translate the astronomical data into sounds that humans can hear.

Westerlund 2 (above)

This is a cluster of young stars — about one to two million years old — located about 20,000 light years from Earth. In its visual image form, data from Hubble (green and blue) reveals thick clouds where stars are forming, while X-rays seen from Chandra (purple) penetrate through that haze. In the sonified version of this data, sounds sweep from left to right across the field of view with brighter light producing louder sound. The pitch of the notes indicates the vertical position of the sources in the image with the higher pitches towards the top of the image. The Hubble data is played by strings, either plucked for individual stars or bowed for diffuse clouds. Chandra's X-ray data is represented by bells, and the more diffuse X-ray light is played by more sustained tones.

Tycho's Supernova Remnant:

Beginning in the center, the sonification of the Tycho supernova remnant expands outward in a circle. The image contains X-ray data from Chandra where the various colors represent small bands of frequency that are associated with different elements that are moving both toward and away from Earth. For example, red shows iron, green is silicon, and blue represents sulfur. The sonification aligns with those colors as the redder light produces the lowest notes and blue and violet create the higher-pitched notes. Color varies over the remnant, but the lowest and highest notes (red and blue) dominate near the center and are joined by other colors (mid-range notes) towards the edge of the remnant. White corresponds to the full range of frequencies of light observable by Chandra, which is strongest toward the edge of the remnant. This light is converted to sound in a more direct way as well, by interpreting frequencies of light as frequencies of sound and then shifting them lower by 50 octaves so that they fall within the human hearing range. The different proportions of iron, silicon, and sulfur across the remnant can be heard in the changing amounts of the low-, mid-, and high-frequency peaks in the sound. The field of stars in the image as observed by Hubble is played as notes on a harp with the pitch determined by their color.

M87:

The giant black hole in Messier 87 (M87 for short) and its surroundings have been studied for many years and by a range of telescopes including Chandra (blue) and the Very Large Array (red and orange). This data shows that the black hole in M87 is sending out massive jets of energetic particles that interact with vast clouds of hot gas that surround it. To translate the X-rays and radio waves into sound, the image is scanned beginning at the 3 o'clock position and sweeping clockwise like a radar. Light farther from the center is heard as higher pitched while brighter light is louder. The radio data are lower pitched than the X-rays, corresponding to their frequency ranges in the electromagnetic spectrum. The point-like sources in X-ray light, most of which represent stars in orbit around a black hole or neutron star, are played as short, plucked sounds.

The data sonification project is led by the Chandra X-ray Center (CXC) with NASA's Universe of Learning program. NASA's Science Activation program strives to enable NASA science experts and to incorporate NASA science content into the learning environment effectively and efficiently for learners of all ages. The collaboration was driven by visualization scientist Dr. Kimberly Arcand (CXC) and astrophysicist Dr. Matt Russo with musician Andrew Santaguida (both of the SYSTEM Sounds project)

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Chandra X-ray Center controls science from Cambridge, Massachusetts and flight operations from Burlington, Massachusetts. NASA's Universe of Learning materials are based upon work supported by NASA under cooperative agreement award number NNX16AC65A to the Space Telescope Science Institute, working in partnership with Caltech/IPAC, the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

 

Fast Facts for Westerlund 2:
Credit  X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/Sejong Univ./Hur et al; Optical: NASA/STScI; Sonification: NASA/CXC/SAO/K.Arcand, SYSTEM Sounds (M. Russo, A. Santaguida)
Release Date  September 16, 2021
About the Sound 
  • Left to right sweep across image (stereo position also indicates left-right position within the image)

  • Note pitch indicates the vertical position (higher pitches towards the top of the image)

  • Volume indicates the brightness

  • X-ray sources (Chandra) are played by bells, with the more diffuse X-ray light is played by purer sustained tones

  • Optical light (Hubble) played by strings: stars are plucked strings and nebula are sustained strings

  • Scale  Image is about 7.5 arcmin (44 light years) across
    Category  Groups & Clusters of Galaxies
    Coordinates (J2000)  RA 10h 23m 58.10s | Dec -57° 45´ 49.0"
    Constellation  Carina
    Observation Date  3 pointings: Aug 23, 2003, Sep 5 & 28, 2006
    Observation Time  24 hours 37 minutes (1 day 37 minutes)
    Obs. ID  3501, 6410, 6411
    Instrument  ACIS
    Color Code  X-ray: purple; Optical: red, green, blue
    Optical
    X-ray
    Distance Estimate  About 20,000 light years
    distance arrow


    Fast Facts for Tycho's Supernova Remnant:
    Credit  X-ray: NASA/CXC/RIKEN & GSFC/T. Sato et al; Optical: DSS; Sonification: NASA/CXC/SAO/K.Arcand, SYSTEM Sounds (M. Russo, A. Santaguida)
    Release Date  September 16, 2021
    About the Sound 
  • Image is scanned form the inside out by a circle that starts in the middle and expands

  • The volume indicates the brightness

  • The stereo position indicates the left-right position in the image

  • X-ray layer (Chandra): the pitch indicates the color of light under this expanding circle (redder light produces lower notes, blue-violet produces higher notes, other colors are in between). Color varies wildly over the remnant but red/blue (low/high notes) dominate near the middle and are joined by other colors (mid-range notes) towards the edge of the remnant.

  • Spectra layer (Chandra): X-ray spectra is converted to sound. Frequencies of light are interpreted as frequencies of sound and then shifted by 50 octaves, (about 8 piano widths) to fall within the human hearing range. This is strongest towards the edge of the remnant where it appears white. Three high peaks are due to Iron, Silicon, and Sulfur (from left to right). Their changing proportions within different regions of the remnant can be heard in the changing amounts of the low, mid, and high frequency peaks in the sound.

  • Optical layer (Hubble): same mapping as the X-ray layer (color controls pitch, brightness controls volume) but notes are played on a harp, one for each

  • Scale  Image is about 12 arcmin (45 light years) across
    Category  Supernovas & Supernova Remnants
    Coordinates (J2000)  RA 00h 25m 17s | Dec +64° 08´ 37"
    Constellation  Cassiopeia
    Observation Date  14 pointings between Oct 1, 2001 & April 22, 2016
    Observation Time  336 hours 2 minutes (14 days 0 hours 2 minutes))
    Obs. ID  115, 3837, 7539, 8551, 10093-10097; 10902-10904; 10906, 15998
    Instrument  ACIS
    Color Code  X-ray Broadband: (Red: 0.3-1.2 keV, Yellow: 1.2-1.6 keV, Cyan: 1.6-2.26 keV, Navy: 2.2-4.1 keV, Purple: 4.4-6.1 keV); X-ray Motion Shift (Orange: 1.7666-1.7812 keV, Blue: 1.9564-1.971 keV); Optical: red, blue
    Optical
    X-ray
    Distance Estimate  About 13,000 light years
    distance arrow


    Fast Facts for M87:
    Credit  X-ray (NASA/CXC/KIPAC/N. Werner, E. Million et al); Radio (NRAO/AUI/NSF/F. Owen); Sonification: NASA/CXC/SAO/K.Arcand, SYSTEM Sounds (M. Russo, A. Santaguida)
    Release Date  September 16, 2021
    About the Sound 
  • Radar-like sweep starting at 3 o'clock and sweeping clockwise

  • Image brightness controls volume and brightness of the sound (amount of higher frequencies present)

  • The distance from the center controls musical pitch (larger radius is higher pitched)

  • Radio and X-ray layers are set to low and high pitch ranges respectively

  • Compact background sources appearing in the X-ray layer are heard as a plucked sound, as with the image, the brightness controls the volume and the radius controls the pitch

  • Scale  Image is about 14 arcmin (200,000 light years) across
    Category  Supernovas & Supernova Remnants
    Coordinates (J2000)  RA 12h 30m 49.40s | Dec +12° 23´ 28.00"
    Constellation  Virgo
    Observation Date  2 pointings in Jul 2002 and 7 pointings between Jan and Nov 2005
    Observation Time  159 hours (6 days 15 hours)
    Obs. ID  2707, 3717, 5826-5828, 6186, 7210-7212
    Instrument  ACIS
    Color Code  X-ray: blue; Radio: red-orange
    Radio
    X-ray
    Distance Estimate  About 50 million light years
    distance arrow
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