NASA is giving humanity a unique opportunity by leveraging modern technologies to release ‘music’ created by transforming telescope observation data into sounds. The process itself — sonification — isn’t new. However, this is the first time images of our galaxy have been transformed into sound, according to NASA. The space agency tapped a variety of sources for the data, including observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra Observatory, and more.
Data can be represented in a variety of ways, but visual tends to be the most common. Humans heavily rely on sight to perceive and understand the material world, but that’s not our only sense, NASA notes. There’s also the ability to hear and the unique perception offered by sound, which is itself simply a representation of some variety of underlying data.
NASA has combined the two by taking observation data used to create some of its most notable Milky Way images and parsing the data back out into sounds. Rather than having light, gas, dust, objects, and other elements displayed visually, these elements are presented with different sounds ranging from low drones to high pitches. The lighting in the images is used to control the intensity and pitch of the audio.
The space agency assigned each of the telescopes behind the observations to function as individual ‘instruments,’ their respective sounds representing the types of data the telescopes were designed to observe. NASA has generated quite a few pieces of music and ‘solo tracks’ from these various observations, some of them combined together and others isolated for a beautiful, haunting experience.
In some of the pieces, the music is played from left to right across the images; in others, depending on the type of image converted to audio, the music is instead generated from the center of the image spreading outward. The generated music includes everything from massive sky surveys covering hundreds of light-years to more isolated images featuring stars, pulsars, and more.