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Data Sonification: Sounds from Around the Milky Way

  • A new project using sonification turns astronomical images from Chandra and other telescopes into sound.

  • This allows users to "listen" to the center of the Milky Way as observed in X-ray, optical, and infrared light.

  • As the cursor moves across the image, sounds represent the position and brightness of the sources.

  • This project also turned astronomical images of the supernova Cassiopeia A and the "Pillars of Creation" into sound.

The center of our Milky Way galaxy is too distant for us to visit in person, but we can still explore it. Telescopes give us a chance to see what the Galactic Center looks like in different types of light. By translating the inherently digital data (in the form of ones and zeroes) captured by telescopes in space into images, astronomers create visual representations that would otherwise be invisible to us.

But what about experiencing these data with other senses like hearing? Sonification is the process that translates data into sound, and a new project brings the center of the Milky Way to listeners for the first time. The translation begins on the left side of the image and moves to the right, with the sounds representing the position and brightness of the sources. The light of objects located towards the top of the image are heard as higher pitches while the intensity of the light controls the volume. Stars and compact sources are converted to individual notes while extended clouds of gas and dust produce an evolving drone. The crescendo happens when we reach the bright region to the lower right of the image. This is where the 4-million-solar-mass supermassive black hole at the center of the Galaxy, known as Sagittarius A* (A-star), resides, and where the clouds of gas and dust are the brightest.

Users can listen to data from this region, roughly 400 light years across, either as "solos" from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, Hubble Space Telescope, and Spitzer Space Telescope, or together as an ensemble in which each telescope plays a different instrument. Each image reveals different phenomena happening in this region about 26,000 light years from Earth. The Hubble image outlines energetic regions where stars are being born, while Spitzer's infrared image shows glowing clouds of dust containing complex structures. X-rays from Chandra reveal gas heated to millions of degrees from stellar explosions and outflows from Sagittarius A*.

In addition to the Galactic Center, this project has also produced sonified versions of the remains of a supernova called Cassiopeia A, or Cas A, and the "Pillars of Creation" located in Messier 16. In Cas A, the sounds are mapped to four elements found in the debris from the exploded star as well as other high-energy data. The distribution of silicon (red), sulfur (yellow), calcium (green), and iron (purple) are revealed moving outward from the center of the remnant, starting from the location of the neutron star, in four different directions, with intensity again controlling the volume. There is also another version with fifth audio path moving along the upper left jet.

Cassiopeia A:

Explore Solos

In the "Pillars of Creation" piece, the sounds are generated by moving horizontally across the image from left to right as seen in both optical and X-ray light. As with the sonification of the Galactic Center, the vertical position of the recorded light controls the pitch, but in this case it varies over a continuous range of pitches. Particular attention is paid to the structure of the pillars which can be heard as sweeps from low to high pitches and back. The two different "melodies" of optical and X-ray light can be enjoyed individually or simultaneously.

M16/"Pillars of Creation":

Explore Solos

Sound plays a valuable role in our understanding of the world and cosmos around us. Explore how scientists are using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and other instruments around the world and in space to study the cosmos through sound at the Universe of Sound website.

This sonification of the Galactic Center, Cas A, and M16 was led by the Chandra X-ray Center (CXC) as part of the NASA's Universe of Learning (UoL) program. NASA's Science Activation program strives to enable NASA science experts and to incorporate NASA science content into the learning environment effectively and efficiently for learners of all ages. The collaboration was driven by visualization scientist Kimberly Arcand (CXC), astrophysicist Matt Russo and musician Andrew Santaguida (both of the SYSTEMS Sound project.) NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Chandra X-ray Center controls science from Cambridge Massachusetts and flight operations from Burlington, Massachusetts. NASA's Universe of Learning materials are based upon work supported by NASA under cooperative agreement award number NNX16AC65A to the Space Telescope Science Institute, working in partnership with Caltech/IPAC, Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Sonoma State University.


Fast Facts for Galactic Center:
Credit:   X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/STScI; IR: Spitzer NASA/JPL-Caltech; Sonification: NASA/CXC/SAO/K.Arcand, SYSTEM Sounds (M. Russo, A. Santaguida)
Release Date:  September 22, 2020
About the Sound 
  • X-ray: xylophone

  • Optical: violin

  • Infrared: piano
  • Scale:  Image is about 32 arcmin (400 light years) across
    Category  Normal Galaxies & Starburst Galaxies
    Coordinates (J2000):   RA 17h 45m 36s | -28° 55´ 58.8"
    Constellation:  Sagittarius
    Observation Dates:  03/29/2000 - 07/19/2007
    Observation Time:  627 hours (26 days 3 hours)
    Obs. IDs:  658,944-945, 1561, 2267-2296, 2943, 2951-2954, 3392-3393, 3549, 3663, 3665, 4500, 4683-4684, 5360, 5892, 5950-5954, 6113, 6363, 6639, 6640-6646, 7034-7048, 7345-7346, 7554-7557, 8214, 8459, 8567
    Instrument:  ACIS
    Color Code:  X-ray: blue, purple; Optical: yellow; Infrared (IR): red
    Distance Estimate:  About 26,000 light years
    distance arrow


    Fast Facts for Cassiopeia A:
    Credit:  X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Sonification: NASA/CXC/SAO/K.Arcand, SYSTEM Sounds (M. Russo, A. Santaguida)
    Release Date:  September 22, 2020
    About the Sound 
  • A full string section (double bass, cello, viola, and 2 violins) with each instrument assigned to a single note.

  • Each element is assigned to a unique note.
  • Scale:  Image is about 8.9 arcmin (29 light years) across
    Category:  Supernovas & Supernova Remnants
    Coordinates (J2000):  RA 23h 23m 26.7s | Dec +58° 49' 03.00"
    Constellation:  Cassiopeia
    Observation Dates:  16 pointings between Jan. 2000 and Nov. 2010
    Observation Time:  353 hours (14 days, 17 hours)
    Obs. IDs:  114, 1952, 4634-4639, 5196, 5319, 5320, 6690, 10935, 10936, 12020, 13177
    Instrument:  ACIS
    Color Code:  X-rays: Red: silicon, Yellow: sulphur, Green: calcium, Purple: iron, Blue: blast wave/high energy
    Distance Estimate  About 11,000 light years
    distance arrow


    Facts for M16:
    Credit:   X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/STScI; Sonification: NASA/CXC/SAO/K.Arcand, SYSTEM Sounds (M. Russo, A. Santaguida)
    Release Date:  September 22, 2020
    About the Sound 
  • Synthesized sound consisting of combinations of sine waves controlled by data in the image.

  • Compact sources produce short, pure tones, extended sources such as the pillars produce noisy roaring sounds as they contain many frequencies.

  • Scale:  Image is about 2.5 arcmin (5.13 light years) across
    Category:  Normal Stars & Star Clusters
    Coordinates (J2000):  RA 18h 18m 51.79s | Dec -13º 49' 54.93"
    Constellation:  Serpens
    Observation Date:  July 20, 2001
    Observation Time:  22 hours
    Obs. IDs:  978
    Instrument:  ACIS
    Color Code:  X-ray (larger point sources): red (0.5-1.5 keV); green (1.5-2.5 keV); blue (2.5-7.0 keV); Optical (diffuse emission & smaller point sources): red, green and blue
    Distance Estimate  About 5,700 light years
    distance arrow


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