When we think about objects in space, like galaxies and black holes, our only frame of reference are the images we’ve seen, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and similar instruments. Now, thanks to NASA’s new data sonification series, we can translate data signals of these objects into audio.
NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory is interpreting the telescope data and turning it into audio. So far, three cosmic entities have been converted into wondrous soundscapes: the Whirlpool Galaxy, the Chandra Deep Field, and the Cat’s Eye Nebula.
The Chandra Deep Field South is the deepest image ever taken in X-rays and represents over seven million seconds of Chandra observation. The dots seen in its sonification video are either galaxies or black holes (many of which are supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies). The colors dictate the tones you hear, with red colors assigned as low tones and the more purple colors assigned higher tones. And, appropriately, white dots are heard as white noise. This particular image is read from bottom to top, and you can follow along with the moving bar.
The Cat’s Eye Nebula has a stunning look, and features outbursts of gas and dust from a star. This image features both visible light data and X-rays. Light that’s further from the center is interpreted as higher tones, and brighter tones are louder. Furthermore, X-ray data gives off a harsher sound, while visible light data has a smoother sound. This sonification video looks more like a radar scan, moving clockwise starting from the center.
Lastly, the Whirlpool Galaxy (also known as Messier 51) is one of the most iconic astronomical images, thanks to its perpendicular orientation to our vantage point on Earth. This image was mapped to tones in a minor scale, and moves clockwise, just like the Cat’s Eye Nebula scan. Each wavelength (X-ray, ultraviolet, infrared, and optical) was assigned a different frequency range in the sonification video.
So, grab your headphones and listen to each video individually. It’s certainly a mind-blowing way to explore our universe.