Listen: NASA Turned An Iconic Space Image Into A Sublime Audio Treat

Explore a mesmerizing galactic gathering like never before.

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Stephan's Quintet. In this object, five galaxies appear very crowded to one another. In between the ...

The eclectic collection of five galaxies known as Stephan’s Quintet can now be heard.

On Tuesday, NASA published its latest venture into sonification. No, the space agency hasn’t placed microphones 40 million to 290 million light-years away from Earth. Sonification is when a cosmic region comes alive by way of scientific data that scientists code into sound. When a division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate called “Universe of Learning” does sonification, a cosmic object traditionally displayed as a 2D static image is transformed into song.

“When data is translated for another sense, in this case into sound, it creates an opportunity to process that information in a different way,” Kimberly Arcand, the visualization scientist who leads these developments for NASA’s Universe of Learning, said in the announcement published Tuesday.

“The sonification provides a moment in time to think about where this object is situated in the greater space environment and can also highlight certain aspects of the data that may not have been noticeable at first glance. Through sound, the listener can get a sense of a super fun dance party: four close interacting galaxies and one sort of introverted galaxy a little further away,” she adds.

“Through sound, the listener can get a sense of a super fun dance party: four close interacting galaxies and one sort of introverted galaxy a little further away.”

Making space science accessible

With sound, science communicators at NASA can reach people who are blind and low-vision.

“Sonifications offer a sensory way for me to experience the scale and potency of astronomical phenomena,” Christine Malec, a member of the blind and low-vision community who supports this work, says in the announcement. “They are an invitation to blind and partially-sighted people to listen, enjoy, and then go deeper by reading to understand what exactly is being heard.”

What’s in a song

NASA debuted two new videos on Tuesday. One is a special visualization treat, where the viewer explores Stephan’s Quintet in a 3D tour.

The song, “Stephan’s Quintet Composite,” offers an audio experience that’s rich in science data.

“The sonification scans the image from top to bottom… The soundtrack begins with the intensive pattering of notes by a synthetic glass marimba, denoting the numerous background galaxies and foreground stars that are present at the top of the image. The stars that have diffraction spikes, which look brighter in this image compared to stars without, are represented through crash cymbals and higher plinks of notes,” wrote officials from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Each dynamic element in the song delivers data from JWST, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the retired Spitzer Space Telescope.

“Although two differing modalities, the visualization video and sonification of Stephan’s Quintet work in complementary ways,” wrote Universe of Learning officials. The videos work together to reveal how these galaxies interact with each other.

At their core, they’re a sublime audiovisual treat.

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