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Data Sonification: Stellar, Galactic, and Black Hole

  • Astronomical data from three new objects have been translated into sound as part of a data sonification project.

  • The Chandra Deep Field, the Cat's Eye planetary nebula, and the Whirlpool Galaxy are the latest objects to have their data turned into sounds.

  • The data come from the Chandra X-ray Observatory as well as other NASA telescopes in space.

  • Data sonification allows users to be able to hear information from cosmic objects as well as see it.

This latest installment from our data sonification series features three diverse cosmic scenes. In each, 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-based telescopes into a form that users can hear instead of only see, embodying the data in a new form without changing the original content.

Chandra Deep Field (above)

This is the deepest image ever taken in X-rays, representing over seven million seconds of Chandra observing time. For that reason, and because the observed field is in the southern hemisphere, astronomers call this region the "Chandra Deep Field South". At first glance, this image may appear to be a view of stars. Rather, almost all these different colored dots are black holes or galaxies. Most of the former are supermassive black holes that reside at the centers 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 toward the red end of the rainbow are heard as low tones while colors towards purple are assigned to 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 of this region. In the visual color image, this large frequency range in X-rays had to be compressed to be shown as red, green, and blue for low, medium, and high-energy X-rays. Played as sound, however, the full range of data can be experienced. As the piece scans 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 will blow off huge clouds of gas and dust. These outbursts can form spectacular structures such as the one seen in the Cat's Eye nebula. This image of the Cat's Eye contains both X-rays from Chandra around the center and visible light data from the Hubble Space Telescope, which show the series of bubbles expelled by the star over time. To listen to these data, there is a radar-like scan that moves clockwise emanating from the center point to produce pitch. Light that is further from the center is heard as higher pitches while brighter light is louder. The X-rays are represented by a harsher sound, while the visible light data sound smoother. The circular rings create a constant hum, interrupted by a few sounds from spokes in the data. The rising and falling pitches that can be heard are due to the radar scan passing across the shells and jets in the nebula.

Messier 51

Messier 51 (M51) is perhaps better known by its nickname of the Whirlpool Galaxy because its face-on orientation to Earth reveals its wound-up spiral arms. This gives telescopes here a view of another spiral galaxy similar to our Milky Way, whose structure we cannot observe directly from our position within it. As with the Cat's Eye, the sonification begins at the top and moves radially around the image in a clockwise direction. The radius is mapped 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 separately moves through the data from Spitzer, Hubble, GALEX, and Chandra. At wavelengths in which the spiral arms are prominent, the pitches creep upwards as the spiral reaches farther from the core. 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 led by the Chandra X-ray Center (CXC). The collaboration was driven by visualization scientist Dr. Kimberly Arcand (CXC), astrophysicist Dr. Matt Russo and musician Andrew Santaguida (both of the SYSTEM Sound project).

 

Fast Facts for Chandra Deep Field South:
Credit  X-ray: NASA/CXC/Penn State/B.Luo et al.; Sonification: NASA/CXC/SAO/K.Arcand, SYSTEM Sounds (M. Russo, A. Santaguida)
Release Date  March 24, 2021
About the Sound 
  • A vertical scan from bottom to top

  • Color (technically the hue) in the image is mapped to musical pitches: the colors of the rainbow from red through violet are mapped to low to high pitches

  • The color represents x-ray energy/frequency so lower notes represent lower energy x-rays and higher notes are higher energy x-rays

  • The full range of sonic frequencies is similar to the range of x-ray frequencies present (which is much larger than the range of visible frequencies in the visible spectrum)

  • Sources that appear white emit x-rays of many frequencies which is represented in sound as white noise (usually short pulses because the sources are small)

  • The volume is controlled by the brightness of each source

  • The horizontal position of the sources are reflected in the stereo panning (sources near the left are heard more in the left channel and similarly for the right)

  • Scale  Image is about 16 arcmin across
    Category  Cosmology/Deep Fields/X-ray Background, Black Holes
    Coordinates (J2000)  RA 03h 32m 28s | Dec -27° 48´ 30.00"
    Constellation  Fornax
    Observation Date  102 pointings between 1999 and 2016
    Observation Time  1944 hours 27 min (81 days 27 minutes)
    Obs. ID  1431, 441, 582, 1672, 2239, 2312, 2313, 2405, 2406, 2409, 8591-8597, 9575, 9578, 9593, 9596, 9718, 12043-12055, 12123, 12128, 12129, 12135, 12137, 12138, 12213, 12218-12220, 12222, 12223, 12227, 12230-12234, 16175-16191, 16450-16463, 16620, 16641, 16644, 17416, 17417, 17535, 17542, 17546, 17552, 17556, 17573, 17633, 17634, 17677, 18709, 18719, 18730
    Instrument  ACIS
    Color Code  X-ray: red, green, and blue
    X-ray
    Distance Estimate  About 11.9 to 12.9 billion light years
    distance arrow


    Fast Facts for Cat's Eye Nebula (NGC 6543):
    Credit  X-ray: NASA/CXC/RIT/J.Kastner et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI; Sonification: NASA/CXC/SAO/K.Arcand, SYSTEM Sounds (M. Russo, A. Santaguida)
    Release Date  March 24, 2021
    About the Sound 
  • Radar-like scan starting at 3 O'Clock and sweeping clockwise

  • The loudness is determined by the brightness in the image

  • The pitches are determined by the distance from the center, light farther from the center is heard as higher pitched notes from a certain type of major scale

  • The optical layer includes a wide range of pitches and uses a smoother sound

  • The x-ray layer uses only the higher range of pitches and uses a harsher sound

  • The horizontal position of the tip of the scanning line is reflected in the stereo panning of the sound

  • Scale  Image is about 1.2 arcmin (1.7 light years) across
    Category  White Dwarfs & Planetary Nebulas
    Coordinates (J2000)  RA 17h 58m 33.30s | Dec +66° 37´ 59.20"
    Constellation  Draco
    Observation Date  May 10, 2000
    Observation Time  13 hours
    Obs. ID  630
    Instrument  ACIS
    Color Code  X-ray: purple; Optical: red, green, and blue
    Optical
    X-ray
    Distance Estimate  About 3,000 light years
    distance arrow


    Fast Facts for M51 (Whirlpool Galaxy):
    Credit  X-ray: NASA/CXC/Wesleyan Univ./R.Kilgard et al; UV: NASA/JPL-Caltech; Optical: NASA/ESA/S. Beckwith & Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); IR: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Univ. of AZ/R. Kennicutt; Sonification: NASA/CXC/SAO/K.Arcand, SYSTEM Sounds (M. Russo, A. Santaguida)
    Release Date  March 24, 2021
    About the Sound 
  • Radar-like scan starting at 12 o'clock and sweeping clockwise

  • The loudness is determined by the brightness in the image
  • The pitches are determined by the distance from the center, light farther from the center is heard as higher pitched notes from a certain scale

  • Each wavelength is mapped to a limited range of pitches from the melodic minor scale, from low to high pitch (low to high light frequency): infrared, optical, UV, X-ray

  • A choir sound is used for the smoother features and a combination of a harp and a piano are used for small compact sources

  • The horizontal position of the tip of the scanning line is reflected in the stereo panning of the sound

  • Scale  Image is about 2.2 arcmin across
    Category  Normal Galaxies & Starburst Galaxies
    Coordinates (J2000)  RA 13h 29m 52.3s | Dec +47° 11´ 11.54"
    Constellation  Canes Venatici
    Observation Date  June 20, 2000 and June 23, 2001
    Observation Time  12 hours
    Obs. ID  354, 1622
    Instrument  ACIS
    Color Code  X-ray: purple; Ultraviolet: blue; Optical: green; Infrared: red
    IR
    Optical
    UV
    X-ray
    Distance Estimate  About 30 million light years
    distance arrow
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