While nobody can hear you scream in space—dang airless vacuum!—there are still ways to “hear” cosmic objects. Using “sonifications,” or non-speech audio tracks that audibly perceptualize data, NASA can help people listen to the angelic music of the Milky Way galaxy. Or, in a new instance, the “sounds” of nebula NGC 2392. Which, to our ears, are reminiscent of a terrifying alien message from another world.
NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center recently posted the sonification of NGC 2392 to its YouTube channel. NGC 2392—a.k.a. the “Eskimo” nebula—is approximately 5,000 light-years from Earth and consists of the glowing remains of a dying, Sun-like star. (Astronomer William Herschel first spotted the nebula in the late 18th century; referring to it as an eskimo because of the way it resembles a face surrounded by a fur parka.)
To make the sonification Canadian musician Andrew Santaguida, and Matt Russois, an astrophysicist and musician who’s also from Canada, scanned the below image clockwise like a radar. Santaguida and Russois then mapped the nebula’s radius to a pitch; having light farther from the nebula’s center represent higher pitched notes. The outline of the nebula’s shell—that is, its spherical layer of ionized gas—is heard via the rising and falling of the pitch. Likewise, the varying brightness of the nebula controls the volume of the sonification.
As for the nebula sonification itself, it’s straight out of an episode of the X-Files. It’s hard to describe the sounds with words (which is a little ironic?), but suffice to say it’s creepy. Almost like walking through an underground cement hallway and hearing leaky pipes moan and groan behind the walls. Or perhaps listening to a theremin that’s playing from the depths of an ocean of the damned.
Anybody who loves this sonification and wants more, NASA and SYSTEM sounds, a “sci-art outreach project” headed by Santaguida and Russiois, has a lot more samples. Or, if you’re looking for something equally creepy, but not from space, you can listen to the sonification of spiderwebs. Although, unfortunately, we have not yet heard any kind of sonification of spiders in space.