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A Tour of Data Sonification: A New Cosmic Triad of Sound

A new trio of examples of a data sonification project from NASA missions provides a novel way to enjoy an arrangement of cosmic objects. Data sonification translates information collected by various NASA missions — including the Chandra X-ray Observatory, Hubble Space Telescope, and Spitzer Space Telescope — into

sounds. This image of the Bullet Cluster provided the first direct proof of dark matter, the mysterious unseen substance that makes up the vast majority of matter in the Universe. X-rays from Chandra show where the hot gas in two merging galaxy clusters has been wrenched away from dark matter, seen through a process known as "gravitational lensing" in data from Hubble and ground-based telescopes. In converting this into sound, each layer of data was limited to a specific frequency range, and different pitches were assigned to produce a range of tones.

In the sonification of the Crab Nebula, each wavelength of light has been paired with a different family of instruments. Telescopes have captured detailed data of the quickly spinning neutron star that formed when a massive star collapsed. Brass instruments play the X-rays from Chandra, optical light data from Hubble are heard in the strings, and infrared data from Spitzer are audible as woodwinds. In each case, light received towards the top of the image is played as higher pitched notes and brighter light is played louder.

Data sonification also delivers a new take on Supernova 1987A, one of the brightest supernova explosions in centuries. This time lapse depicts a series of Chandra and Hubble observations taken between 1999 and 2013 as a dense ring of gas begins to glow brighter when a shockwave from the supernova moves outward. As the focus sweeps around the image, the data are translated into the sound of a crystal singing bowl, with brighter light being heard as higher and louder notes. Hubble data occupy the higher range of notes, while X-rays from Chandra take the lower. This allows both wavelengths of light to be heard simultaneously.

Projects like these expand the opportunities that are available for people to enjoy and explore data from the world's most powerful telescopes of the Universe's most intriguing objects.

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