NASA Plays Extremely Loud Supernova Sounds With Musical Instruments

We can finally hear what a supernova sounds like, thanks to NASA's new project.
Brad Bergan

Space is a place without audible sound — since it lacks the pressure of substances like air in an atmosphere to propagate. But NASA's "data sonification" program is unveiling the sounds extremely loud cosmic objects would emit when transposed for play via Earth-bound musical instruments, according to a recent press release on NASA's website.


NASA converts supernova into musical soundscape

A new trio of "data sonification" examples from data gathered on NASA missions has created a new way of enjoying cosmic objects. They involve NASA's Chandra X-ray Center — which has continued to image distant galaxies for 20 years.

The new initiative led Chandra researchers to take three iconic images from their cosmic archives, and translate varying frequencies of light into an evolving soundscape.

A video of the crab nebula — which is a supernova remnant housing a windy neutron star — shows how NASA's data sonification breaks down in a full orchestra. X-ray light (white and blue) is assigned to brass instruments, while the pink-looking infrared is assigned to the woodwind section, and the optical light (purple) is the pleasure of string instruments.

Each instrument family's pitch rises from the bottom of the image to the top, which creates an otherworldly, chromatic new-age effect — climaxing near the center of the nebula, where a rapidly spinning pulsar is firing gas and radiation out in every direction.

NASA assigns lower frequencies to darker matter, and vice-versa

NASA also posted two additional videos — one featuring the Bullet Cluster, which involves two clusters of galaxies in a slow-motion collision with one another roughly 3.7 billion light-years from Earth. This cosmic collision gave us the first direct evidence of dark matter's existence — which forces the galaxies residing in the two blue regions of the image to look larger and closer via a physical process called gravitational lensing, said NASA.

The blue, dark-matter-like regions are assigned the lowest sound frequencies in NASA's video, with X-ray light assigned the highest audio frequencies.

Third supernova video uses time-lapse effect

The third (and likely not final) video involves a supernova explosion called Supernova 1987A — named so because of the year its magnificent light show first reached our planet from the Large Magellanic Cloud, which is a satellite galaxy of ours roughly 168,000 light-years from Earth.

In contrast to the initial two videos, which pan from left to right, this supernova video has a unique time-lapse effect. While the crosshair slides around the edge of the supernova's fuzzy halo, the image gradually evolves to show the object's transformation over time — from 1999 to 2013.

The brighter the light from the halo, the higher the musical pitch we hear. The gas ring achieves a peak brightness as the supernova shock-wave slices through it, which places the loudest, highest pitches at the very end of the video, NASA said.

As NASA missions continue to expand our means of studying and comprehending the nature of our universe's most extreme cosmic objects, we can only imagine the possibilities of transposing phenomena outside of our ability to directly sense. While an orchestral, new-age treatment is pleasing to the ears, perhaps one day we'll experience something far more immersive, via VR.

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