James Webb’s images have now been mapped into a symphony of sounds

Listen your way through the complex Cosmic Cliffs in the Carina Nebula.
Fabienne Lang
Edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula.
Edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula.

NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI 

You can now immerse two of your senses into space from right here on Earth. Not only can your eyes feast on NASA's James Webb Space Telescope's dazzling space images, but your ears can now also listen to the accompanying complex soundscapes of two of these full-color photos.

A team of scientists, musicians, and a member of the blind and visually impaired community worked to adapt Webb’s data, with support from the Webb mission and NASA’s Universe of Learning, explained a NASA report.

Thanks to the team, you can now lose yourself in the Cosmic Cliffs in the spectacular Carina Nebula or in the bulbous Southern Ring Nebula's two soundscapes by listening to the two YouTube videos embedded below.

As Matt Russo, a musician and physics professor at the University of Toronto, said to NASA: “Our goal is to make Webb’s images and data understandable through sound – helping listeners create their own mental images.”

Sight and sound for all

Interestingly, people who are blind or low vision, as well as people who can see clearly all reported they learned something about astronomical photos purely by listening. They also explained that these auditory soundscapes "deeply resonated with them."

“One significant finding was from people who are sighted. They reported that the experience helped them understand how people who are blind or low vision access information differently," explained Kimberly Arcand, a visualization scientist at the Chandra X-ray Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who led the initial data sonification project for NASA and now works on it on behalf of NASA’s Universe of Learning.

Christine Malec, a member of the blind and low vision community who supported the project, said: “When I first heard a sonification, it struck me in a visceral, emotional way that I imagine sighted people experience when they look up at the night sky.”

As the NASA team intended, these soundscapes are making James Webb's images even more available to a wider range of people.

“These compositions provide a different way to experience the detailed information in Webb’s first data. Similar to how written descriptions are unique translations of visual images, sonifications also translate the visual images by encoding information, like color, brightness, star locations, or water absorption signatures, as sounds,” said Quyen Hart, a senior education and outreach scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. “Our teams are committed to ensuring astronomy is accessible to all.”

What are the sounds?

The tracks in question are not sounds recorded in space – however much they may seem like it. Instead, Russo and his collaborator, musician Andrew Santaguida, mapped Webb’s data to sound, carefully composing music to accurately represent details the team would like listeners to focus on.

For instance, in the Cosmic Cliffs in the Carina Nebula soundscape, the team assigned unique notes to the semi-transparent, gauzy regions and very dense areas of gas and dust in the nebula, culminating in a buzzing soundscape.

"The sonification scans the image from left to right. The soundtrack is vibrant and full, representing the detail in this gigantic, gaseous cavity that has the appearance of a mountain range. The gas and dust in the top half of the image are represented in blue hues and windy, drone-like sounds. The bottom half of the image, represented in ruddy shades of orange and red, has a clearer, more melodic composition," per NASA.

In the Southern Ring Nebula's sonification, the colors in the images were mapped to pitches of sound – frequencies of light converted directly to frequencies of sound. Near-infrared light is represented by a higher range of frequencies at the beginning of the track. Mid-way through, the notes change, becoming lower overall to reflect that mid-infrared includes longer wavelengths of light, explained NASA.

Let's see which other James Webb images turn into musical meanderings. In the meantime, allow yourself to be lulled and visualize these magnificent cosmic treats from the comfort of your own home.

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