NASA has released three new ‘musical pieces’ based on astronomical observations of distant stars, black holes and galaxies by an X-ray telescope in space.
Based on X-ray observations by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Space Telescope and other ground and space-based telescopes, each of the new pieces reflects the distinct nature of each of the celestial objects. Scientists created them with a technique called sonification that translates observational data into sounds.
The three new sonifications depict the surroundings of the well-known black hole Messier 87 (famously photographed in 2017 by the international collaboration known as the Event Horizon Telescope), a cluster of young stars only one to two million years old, and a dying supernova explosion.
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The Messier 87 sonification combines X-ray data from Chandra and radio observations from the Very Large Array in New Mexico. The sonification scans the image like an hour hand moving clockwise from the 3 o’clock position. The radio data are lower pitched than the X-rays, reflecting their frequency ranges in the electromagnetic spectrum. As the hour hand moves through the massive jets of energetic particles emanating from the black hole and the vast clouds of hot gas inside the galaxy, the background sound changes frequency and intensity. On top of that, short jingle sounds represent each individual star in the image.
The image of the remnants of the Tycho supernova, located some 9,000 light-years away in the constellation Cassiopeia, produces a very different composition of densely packed high pitch jingles over a background of a lower frequency hum. The sonification translates the image data from the supernova’s center towards its edges and beyond, producing an audible change as the supernova’s matter disperses in the surrounding universe.
Each chemical element detected in the image is represented with a tone of a different pitch that corresponds to the colors in the image. Just like in the light spectrum, the lower frequency red colors produce a lower sound while blue produces a higher sound.
As the concentration of various elements changes, so does the sound. The surrounding field of stars, taken from a Hubble Space Telescope image, is sonified by harp strokes, each representing an individual star. Again, the color of the stars corresponds to the pitch of the tone.
The third sonification captures the Westerlund 2 cluster of very young stars. Only one to two million years old, the cluster, located about 20,000 light-years away from Earth, was imaged in the optical spectrum by Hubble (the green and blue elements in the image). Chandra provided the purple X-ray component. The thick star-forming clouds of dust and gas in the cluster produce a sound that varies in loudness based on the brightness of the light in the image. String strokes represent individual stars, the pitch of the tone reflecting their position in the image.
The sonifications were created by visualization scientist Kimberly Arcand, from the Chandra X-ray Center, in collaboration with astrophysicist Matt Russo and musician Andrew Santaguida (of sonification project SYSTEM Sounds).
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