Star hole, galactic and black


  • Astronomical data from three new objects have been translated into sound as part of a data sonification project.
  • Chandra Deep Field, the Cat’s Eye Planetary Nebula, and the Whirlpool Galaxy are the latest objects to turn their data into sounds.
  • The data comes from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, as well as other POT telescopes in space
  • Data sonification allows users to hear and view information from cosmic objects.

This latest installment in our data sonification series features three diverse cosmic scenes. In each one, the astronomical data collected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes are converted into sounds. Data sonification maps the data from these space telescopes in a way that users can hear rather than just view, incorporating the data in a new way without changing the original content.

Chandra deep field

This is the deepest X-ray image ever taken, representing more than seven million seconds of Chandra’s observation time. For that reason, and because the observed field is in the southern hemisphere, astronomers call this region the “South Chandra Deep Field.” At first glance, this image may look like a star view. Rather, almost all of these different colored dots are black holes or galaxies. Most of the former are supermassive black holes that reside in the center of galaxies. In this data sonification, the colors dictate the tones as the bar moves from the bottom of the image to the top. More specifically, colors towards the red end of the rainbow are heard as low tones, while colors towards purple are assigned higher ones. Light that appears bright white in the image is heard as white noise. The wide range of musical frequencies represents the full range of X-ray frequencies collected by Chandra from this region. In the visual color image, this large frequency range in the X-rays had to be compressed to show as red, green and blue for low, medium and high energy X-rays. Reproduced as sound, however, the full range of data can be experienced. As the part is scanned upward, the stereo position of the sounds can help distinguish the position of the sources from left to right.

Cat’s eye nebula

When a star like the Sun begins to run out of helium to burn, it expels huge clouds of gas and dust. These bursts can form spectacular structures like the one seen in the Cat’s Eye Nebula. This cat’s eye image contains both X-rays from Chandra around the center and visible light data from the hubble space telescope, which show the series of bubbles ejected by the star over time. To hear this data, there is a clockwise radar-like scan emanating from the center point to produce the tone. Light that is farther from the center is heard as higher tones, while brighter light is stronger. X-rays are represented by harsher sound, while visible light data sounds softer. The circular rings create a constant hum, interrupted by some sounds from the radios in the data. The rising and falling tones that can be heard are due to radar scanning passing through the nebula’s projectiles and jets.

Messier 51

Messier 51 (M51) is perhaps best known by its nickname the Whirlpool Galaxy because its orientation facing Earth reveals its coiled spiral arms. This gives the telescopes here a view of another spiral galaxy similar to our own. Milky Way, whose structure we cannot observe directly from our position within it. As with the cat’s eye, sonification starts at the top and moves radially around the image in a clockwise direction. The radius is assigned to notes of a melodic minor scale. Each wavelength of light in the image obtained from NASA telescopes in space (infrared, optical, ultraviolet, and X-ray) is assigned to a different frequency range. The sequence begins with sounds from all four types of light, but then moves separately through the data from Spitzer, Hubble, GALEX, and Chandra. At wavelengths where the spiral arms are prominent, the tones slide upward as the spiral moves away from the nucleus. A constant low hum associated with the bright core can be heard, punctuated by short sounds from compact sources of light within the galaxy.

These sonifications of the Deep Field, Cat’s Eye and Whirlpool galaxy were conducted by the Chandra X-ray Center (CXC). The collaboration was spearheaded by visualization scientist Dr. Kimberly Arcand (CXC), astrophysicist Dr. Matt Russo, and musician Andrew Santaguida (both from the SYSTEM Sound project).



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