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Sounds of space: Jingle, pluck and hum

Sounds of space

Listen to the beauty of the universe. Kimberly Arcand is a visualization researcher and science communicator for Chandra, the space-based X-ray telescope. Since 2020, she and her team have been working to present the sounds of space via sonification, the art of turning science data into sound. In this case, they’re turning data from astronomical images into sound. Arcand and her team released this new installment of their work on September 16, 2021. The videos on this page will let you listen to a stellar nursery, a supernova remnant and a supermassive black hole.

Arcand’s team points out that sonification lets sight-impaired people hear what others see. Plus, they say, their work brings a more in-depth experience of the universe to everyone. Arcand said:

Each sonification is created to best portray the scientific data in a way that makes the most sense for the specific data, keeping it accurately represented and telling the story, while also providing a new way of conveying meaning through sound.

Westerlund 2

Westerlund 2 is a star-forming region located 20,000 light-years from Earth. Scientists used a combination of data observed both in optical light and X-rays to create this sonified version of Westerlund 2. For this nebula, the sound bar sweeps from left to right. As the bar encounters brighter light, it produces a louder sound. Higher pitched notes correspond to a higher vertical position on the image. String instruments play the optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope. Bells play the X-ray data from Chandra.

Westerlund 2 is about 44 light-years across. The stellar nursery lies in the direction of the southern constellation Carina. Inside the nebula is a cluster containing some of the hottest, brightest and most massive stars known.

Tycho’s supernova remnant

This large colorful ball of gas and dust is Tycho’s supernova remnant or SN 1572. The sonification for SN 1572 starts at the center and expands outward in a circle, in harmony with how the remnant was created. Different colors in the image represent different elements: red shows iron, green shows silicon and blue is sulfur. For this sonification, the redder light produces the lowest notes. Higher pitched notes represent blue and violet light. The different proportions of iron (red), silicon (green) and sulfur (blue) show up in the sounds when you hear the low to high frequency peaks. Once the sound exits the supernova remnant, you hear plucking of harp strings. These notes represent the visible stars imaged by Hubble. The stars’ colors determine their pitch.

SN 1572 appeared as a bright “new star” in Cassiopeia in the year 1572. The sudden appearance of the new star shook the long-held belief that the heavens were unchangeable. Tycho Brahe, among many others of the time, studied the supernova, and the remnant now bears his name.

The central region of M87

M87 is a giant elliptical galaxy harboring a (rather famous) supermassive black hole in its center. For this sonification, of the central region around the black hole, the sound sweeps around the object from a central point, like a radar scanning the sky. The scan begins its sweep in the three o’clock position. The brighter the light, the louder the sound, while light farther from center is higher pitched.

The black hole in M87 shoots out jets filled with energetic particles. These jets impact the surrounding clouds of gas. The blue data is from X-ray emission observed by the Chandra space telescope, while the red and orange are long wavelength radio data from the Very Large Array. The scientists gave the radio data a lower pitch than the high-energy X-ray data. This choice of pitch corresponds to their frequency ranges in the electromagnetic spectrum. Stars sound like short, plucked notes.

Check out the new image of M87’s black hole released earlier this year.

Sounds of space: Graphic depicting the cosmos.
Read more about space sonification via an earlier story from the Harvard Gazette.

Bottom line: Sonification of space is when scientists turn their astronomical data into sound. A new installment showcases sonification of three different objects: a stellar nursery, a supernova remnant and a supermassive black hole.

Via Chandra X-ray Observatory

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