Some 69 million light-years from Earth is a barred spiral galaxy in the southern hemisphere constellation Eridanus. Its arms are strung with young blue stars, pink cotton candy star-forming clouds, and darkened dusty alleyways.
The Hubble Space Telescope has helped tell galaxy NGC 1300’s story through pictures, but what’s the colorful tale’s soundtrack? Perhaps exactly what you’d expect: a spacey, New Age song, featuring a tinkling synthesizer, fit for an otherworldly atmosphere. NASA recently shared a “soundscape” of the distant galaxy.
Many people are accustomed to seeing what astronomers have observed in the universe through images — the translation of digital data captured by telescopes into different types of light. That helps human eyes perceive cosmic objects that would otherwise be invisible, such as X-rays.
But that data, which comes in the form of 1s and 0s, can also be interpreted into musical notes. So-called sonification is the process of translating data into sound. In a relatively new project, the space agency has created soundscapes to help people experience galaxies through their ears. That’s particularly helpful for blind or low vision people.
The project has not come without criticism, though. Some people have suggested aural interpretations are confusing to laypeople, given that most of space is a vacuum with no medium for sound waves.
When asked about a new audio interpretation of the pressure waves from the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, Neil deGrasse Tyson, for example, said on MSNBC this month he isn’t “a fan” of the process of turning data into music, suggesting it could be misleading to people.
NASA says it’s a popular misconception that there is no sound in space at all.
A galaxy cluster “has copious amounts of gas that envelop hundreds or even thousands of galaxies within it, providing a medium for the sound waves to travel,” the agency wrote in a post.
To create the sonification of NGC 1300, scientists assigned pitches and volumes to elements of the image, such as brightness and position. The brighter the light, the louder the volume; the farther the light from the center, the higher it’s pitched.
The image is “scored” counterclockwise as a radar scans across the galaxy.