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Explained: NASA’s sonification project that turns astronomical images into music?

25th September, 2020 Science and Technology

Context: While telescopes offer glimpses of outer space by translating digital data into stunning images, NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Center (CXC) has gone a step further by unveiling a new ‘sonification’ project that transforms data from astronomical images into audio.

  • The data has been collected by NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory, Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer Space Telescope — each of which is represented by a different musical ‘instrument’.

What is data sonification?

  • Data sonification refers to the use of sound values to represent real data.
  • Simply put, it is the auditory version of data visualisation.
  • In NASA’s recent Chandra project, for instance, data is represented using a number of musical notes.
  • With this data sonification project, users can now experience different phenomena captured in astronomical images as an aural experience.
  • The birth of a star, a cloud of dust or even a black hole can now be ‘heard’ as a high or low pitched sound.

How did NASA translate astronomical images into sound?

  • NASA’s distant telescopes in space collect inherently digital data, in the form of ones and zeroes, before converting them into images.
  • The images are essentially visual representations of light and radiation of different wavelengths in space, that can’t be seen by the human eye.
  • The Chandra project has created a celestial concert of sorts by translating the same data into sound.
  • Pitch and volume are used to denote the brightness and position of a celestial object or phenomenon.
  • So far, the astronomers behind Project Chandra have released three examples made using data collected from some of the most distinct features in the sky — the Galactic Centre, Cassiopeia A, and Pillars of Creation Nebula.

Why is this sonification project useful?

  • The sonification project was led by the Chandra X-ray Center in collaboration with NASA’s Universe of Learning Program (UoL), which aims to “incorporate NASA science content into the learning environment effectively and efficiently for learners of all ages”.
  • Sonification projects allow audiences — including visually-impaired communities — to experience space through data.