Sounds from Space: How Scientists Use Audio to Figure Out the Universe

Artist's Concept of Space Craft Voyager

The vastness of the universe is beyond imagination. And yet it’s a testament to human ingenuity that we keep finding new ways to study it. One more recent technique is when scientists use audio. Usually it’s not audio per se, but other kinds of waves converted to sound. Nevertheless, the results have been enlightening, and they make for fascinating listening.

Voyager’s “Interstellar Music”

The space probes Voyager 1 and 2 were both launched in 1977, and now both have travelled far beyond the confines of our solar system. The Voyagers each have a copy of the “Golden Record,” an LP containing music, greetings in various languages, and earth sounds. Amazingly, the space probes continue to transmit data: sound has come back our way as well. In 2013, Voyager I sent the first “sounds” of interstellar space — the strangely beautiful whistling of plasma waves from deep space. The higher pitch was confirmation for scientists that Voyager had indeed left the solar system.

Space Sounds: Black Hole Notes

You may have seen the first ever picture of a black hole (and if you haven’t, you need to check it out immediately). What’s really interesting is that NASA scientists have been using audio to study black holes for years. The Chandra X-ray Observatory is an orbiting telescope that basically takes X-rays of space. The waves of the rays are converted into sound waves to help study how black holes and galaxies form. In 2003, Chandra detected a sound from a black hole B-flat 57 octaves lower than middle C — “the deepest sound ever detected from an object in the universe.” You can hear more recent audio of a black hole here

The Sounds of Saturn

The Cassini probe was one of the most fascinating NASA missions, a twenty-year journey through the solar system that sent incredible data, especially about Saturn and its moons, back to Earth. Cassini produced astonishing photographs — and sounds. Check out the (literally) otherworldly audio of plasma waves whooshing from Saturn to its moon, Enceladus. Or this chilling clip of fluctuations in Enceladus’s magnetic field, which help scientists get a better idea of its atmosphere. Or the crackling radio waves produced by lightning on Saturn. The Cassini mission reached a bittersweet ending when the probe was purposely crashed into Saturn.

The Winds of Mars

In 2018, NASA’s InSight lander set down on Mars. Its seismometer recorded vibrations of the Martian winds rushing across Insight’s solar panels. NASA scientists then converted the seismic waves into sound. The next Mars probe is going to be even better, because it’s going to have an actual microphone.

Interested in the sounds of outer space?

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