A Guide to the Strange and Wonderful World of NASA’s Soundcloud

Plasma "tsunami waves," the sound of Jupiter's lightning, Voyager 1's "Golden Record," and much more

One of the most prestigious and high-powered scientific institutions in the country, NASA, has a Soundcloud page — just like your favorite indie band or struggling rapper. As might be expected, its selections are as bizarre as they are fascinating. Here is a nearly-complete guide to the must-hear recordings.

High Altitude Student Program (HASP) Recordings

Infrasound microphones pick up sounds that are inaudible to the human ear, and NASA’s page includes several recordings made with these mics on support vehicles from the HASP program. Essentially, these vehicles were helium balloons launched up to 22 miles above the Earth. The interesting thing about the HASP soundbytes — sped up 100 or 1000 times to make them audible to the human ear — is the fact that it is impossible to identify all the sources of the sound. Possible contributing factors include everything from ocean wave patterns to the actual reaction of the balloon cables. The rustling, phased static doesn’t sound very different from some Japanese noise music along the lines of Merzbow. But HASP’s recordings, perhaps, have more dynamics and variation, and they capture the sound of our stratosphere.

Voyager “Tsunami Wave” Transmissions

NASA determined that the Voyager 1 problem had entered interstellar when the institution identified sounds it received last year as those of a “tsunami” shock wave. They were able to deduce, from sonic information sent back from the probe, that after entering interstellar space, Voyager 1 had experienced three shock waves. These solar blasts vibrated throughout the atmosphere around the probe. As Voyager moves further away from our solar system, the plasma-based atmosphere grows thicker. Here’s what interstellar solar plasma blasts sound like:

Sounds of Launch/Communication/Flight

The page includes clips of sounds of lift-off, landing, and mid-flight maneuvers from many spacecrafts, as well as soundbytes from communication between ground control and the astronauts. Yes, included is the iconic and often misquoted “Houston, we’ve had a problem” clip from Apollo 13 and (it’s NASA’s first uploaded sound, cornily enough) Neil Armstrong’s cry of “One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind” on the Apollo 11 mission.

Other Probe Transmissions

More interesting is that these are the recordings of sounds beamed back from the satellites. The page includes the Voyager’s recording of lightning on Jupiter and a dramatic, swooshing recording made by Cassini-Huygens when it passed into the atmosphere of Enceladus, a moon of Saturn which was revealed to have a geyser on its surface, and possibly more bodies of water. The noise sounds like it could have hardly emanated from a non-electronic source — this is certainly “space noise” in the most stereotypical sense.

The Voyager Interstellar Record (The“Golden Record”)

The main reason we are drawing the page to your attention at this time is because NASA has recently added the non-musical sound included on the Voyager mission’s “Golden Record.” This was a database of information, pictures and sound recordings (more than five hours worth) affixed to the Voyager 1 probe in 1977. In 2012, the record, along with Voyager 1, left our solar system and entered interstellar space.

Science writer Carl Sagan spearheaded the Golden Record project working with a committee of scientists, academics, museum curators, and record company employees, and compiled a multivalent and engaging evocation of Earth in sound.

The record has several sections. In the twelve-minute anthology track “Sounds of Earth,” there are natural(-sounding) noises, from the calls of frogs to the “gurgling” sound of mud pots being made, reflective of neanderthal life to kissing noises. (As Sagan notes in his out-of-print report on the Voyager Insterstellar Record, Murmurs of Earth, the “kiss” was almost the sound of record producer and eventual Interscope co-founder Jimmy Iovine sucking his own arm, before Sagan and another staffer decided to kiss instead).

The “Sounds of Earth” section included stock sounds from Elektra Music’s library as well as newly created ones.

But the most interesting part of this section is its midpoint: a musical realization of ratios included in 15th and 16th-century Johannes Kepler’s mathematical tract about the “Music of the Spheres.” The realization is the work of experimental composer Laurie Spiegel. Kepler took off from Pythagorean ideas that music in sound was directly related to the relationship of planets in the solar system, and that this theoretical “music” could be expressed and codified in Pythagorean mathematical ratios. Since this was an outgrowth, some of the earliest extant music-theoretical writing (Pythagoras) was directly related to humans’ earliest impressions of space; it was an apt choice for the Golden record. As Sagan collaborator and Cosmos producer Ann Druyan put it in Murmurs, the piece is included because it represents “roughly a century of planetary motion.”

There is also a set of recordings of traditional forms of “hello” in almost 60 different languages (from Arabic to Wu) in a section called “Greetings to the Universe”:

Extracurricular Listening: The Music of the “Golden Record”

The explicitly musical artifacts included on the Golden Record were selected on even more (perhaps, extremely) subjective terms. As Sagan put it, the criteria for the choices were representing “non-Western” as well as Western musical traditions, and only including music the team felt strongly about — or that were commonly considered to elicit strong emotion.

These are not included on the Soundcloud for copyright reasons (copyright only didn’t apply in space). Murmurs of Earth explains the rationale behind choosing the works and chronicles the debate. Despite Sagan’s desire to include a Beatles song, the most contemporary piece of Western music that made the cut was Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”

Berry’s cut was right up against music of the Japanese bamboo flute (the shakuhachi) and the iconic “Queen of the Night” aria from Mozart’s late-eighteenth-century opera, The Magic Flute. “I do not recall to what degree the choice was conscious,” wrote science writer, former Rolling Stone editor, and “Golden Record” consultant Timothy Ferris, “but in selecting music to go aboard a spacecraft that would sail in interstellar darkness, we found that we had included four pieces on the theme of night — Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Dark Was the Night,’ the Navajo Night Chant, the aboriginal song of the morning star, and this Mozart.”

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