Space Music | Data Sonification

Data streams from experiments as 1 and 0 digits. It arrives at very high rates and is stored for later study. From spacecraft, it is used to make images, produce video, and make sense of the universe. Analysis of the digits simply as visual information is great for most of us. Think of the images from Hubble. But, there are other ways we humans are equipped to perceive our world. These rich data sources can also be converted into sounds. Such a process is called data sonification.

Here is an audio file example (20 sec) from U of IA researcher Don Gurnett. It is called a whistler. They result from lightning strikes which send electromagnetic waves along the magnetic field lines of Earth. This image is the spectrum of a whistler comparing frequency to time of signal. The audio adds a lot to the interpretation of this visual information.

If this sort of thing intrigues you, follow this YouTube link to see and hear more of Gurnett’s favorite examples. One of my favorites at that link is the 5th one down when Voyager I crossed the heliopause. ScienceCast at NASA published the following 4 minute video explanation of the significance of this event.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation (CRaTER) instrument gathers radiation measurements while in orbit around the moon in order to determine the biological effects such radiation might have on future astronauts there. CRaTER has six detectors. Within each 16 seconds, the counts of the detectors are sampled, converted into a musical note for each, then played back in a particular order 2,1,4,3,6,5. Higher count numbers are mapped to lower pitch notes on the scale to give a more emphatic and robust sound. Fewer counts result in a higher pitch tinkling of piano keys. As the count rates go higher during solar storm events, the instruments change, too. The instruments from overall lower to overall higher counts within the range are piano, kora, marimba, strings, steeldrums, nylon stringed guitar, pizzicato strings, banjo. The full description of how the system works is found at this link to the CRaTER page. The link will allow you to hear the current level of radiation at the moon. Those who know music might find this page very interesting.

Below is a player of the CRaTER music track being played during an interview with the developer Marty Quinn at U of NH. You need to turn up the volume when you listen. He explains during the playing.

Transcript…“Each measure of music is one second long and it plays all six detectors from the CRaTER instrument on board the lunar instrument onboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. It plays those data value counts right now on a piano, but if we had a solar storm, or we started to have a solar storm, it would start to change instruments to kora, from Africa, to marimba, strings, steel drum, nylon string guitar, pizzicato strings, and finally banjo for a super storm. And then, it also changes scales based on the data counts that it’s receiving in any 16 seconds. Right now it’s major scale, not much is going on on the moon right now, but it will change to ascending harmonic minor, minor, harmonic minor, and Spanish gypsy minor as the counts increase. So it really changes the whole feeling of the music. It becomes what I call a data soundtrack. My name is Marty Quinn and I work for the University of New Hampshire with the CRaTER team.”

Additional Sonification Sources

The Singing Sun

Sonification Links U of CA

Sounds of Space Samples

Space Audio

Decay of the Higgs ‘God Particle’


7 thoughts on “Space Music | Data Sonification

  1. I’ve heard some of these sounds before – I’m sure it was over at Weather Underground. There are several “space junkies” there who often share things all along the spectrum from cool to weird.

    What tickles me (apart from the banjo as a “super storm” instrument”) is that all of this reminds me of the line from the old hymn: “all nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres”. Poetry become science – good stuff.


    • I thought it odd to use the banjo. I guess it depends on how it is played. It can be quite an attention getter.

      Kepler was in tune with the music of the spheres in his quest to make sense of planetary orbits. I agree about the good stuff observation.

      Thanks for checking this stuff out.


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