For millennia, musicians have looked to the sky for inspiration. Now a new collaboration allows you to use real data from NASA telescopes as a basis for creating original music that humans can play.
Since 2020, the “sonification” project in NASA Chandra X-ray Center has translated digital data taken by telescopes into notes and sounds. This process allows the listener to experience the data through the sense of hearing rather than viewing it as images, a more common way of presenting astronomical data.
A new phase of the sonification project takes the data into different territory. Working with composer Sophie Kastner, the team has developed versions of the data that can be played by musicians.
“It’s like writing a fictional story based largely on true events,” Kastner said. “We are taking the data from space that has been translated into sound and giving it a new, human spin.”
This pilot program focuses on data from a small region at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, where supermassive black hole resides. NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope and the retired Spitzer Space Telescope have studied this area, which spans about 400 light years in diameter.
We have been working with this data, taken into account X-rays, visible and infrared light., for years,” said Kimberly Arcand, visualization and emerging technology scientist at Chandra. “Translating this data into sound was a big step and now, with Sophie, we are again trying something completely new for us.”
In the process of data sonification, computers use algorithms to mathematically map digital data from these telescopes into sounds that humans can perceive. Human musicians, however, have different capabilities than computers.
Kastner chose to focus on small sectors of the picture to make data more accessible to people. This also allowed him to create spotlights on certain parts of the image that easily go unnoticed when playing full sonification.
“I like to think of it as creating short vignettes of the data and approaching it almost as if I were writing a movie soundtrack for the image,” Kastner said. “I wanted to draw the listener’s attention to smaller events in the larger data set.”
The result of this test project is a new composition based and influenced by real data from NASA telescopes, but with a human vision.
“In some ways, this is just another way for humans to interact with the night sky just as they have throughout history,” Arcand says. “We are using different tools, but the concept of drawing inspiration from the skies to make art remains the same.”
Kastner hopes to expand this compositing pilot project to other objects in the Chandra sonification data collection. He also seeks to attract other musical collaborators who are interested in using the data in their pieces.
Sophie Kastner’s Galactic Center piece is titled “Where Parallel Lines Converge.” If you are a musician and want to try playing this sonification at home, check out the sheet music at: https://chandra.si.edu/sound/symphony.html.
The piece was recorded by the Montreal-based Ensemble Éclat and conducted by Charles-Eric LaFontaine on July 19, 2023 at McGill University.
NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Chandra X-ray Center controls science operations from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and flight operations from Burlington, Massachusetts.
For more Chandra images, multimedia and related materials, visit: https://www.nasa.gov/mission/chandra-x-ray-observatory/
Chandra X-ray Center
Marshall Space Flight Center