Sonifications turn telescope images of deep space into music.

Science News listens to astronomical data in a way that’s helping vision-impaired people and scientists find new ways to understand what our deep-space telescopes are showing us:

These musical renditions, or sonifications, were released on September 22 by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Center. “Listening to the data gives [people] another dimension to experience the universe,” says Matt Russo, an astrophysicist and musician at the astronomy outreach project SYSTEM Sounds in Toronto.

Sonification can make cosmic wonders more accessible to people with blindness or visual impairments, and complement images for sighted learners. SYSTEM Sounds teamed up with Kimberly Arcand, a visualization scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., to create the new pieces.

Christine Malec, a musician and astronomy enthusiast who is blind, vividly recalls the first sonification she ever heard — a rendering of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system that Russo played during a planetarium show in Toronto. “I had goosebumps, because I felt like I was getting a faint impression of what it’s like to perceive the night sky, or a cosmological phenomenon,” she says. Music affords data “a spatial quality that astronomical phenomena have, but that words can’t quite convey.”

As a cursor pans from left to right across the image of the galactic center, showing a 400-light-year expanse, Chandra X-ray observations, played on the xylophone, trace filaments of superhot gas. Hubble observations on the violin highlight pockets of star formation, and Spitzer’s piano notes illuminate infrared clouds of gas and dust. Light sources near the top of the image play at higher pitches, and brighter objects play louder. The song crescendos around a luminous region in the lower-right corner of the image, where glowing gas and dust shroud the galaxy’s supermassive black hole.

Layering the instruments on top of each other gives the observations an element of texture, Malec says. “It appealed to my musical sense, because it was done in a harmonious way — it was not discordant.”

You can hear examples and read more about the project at the Chandra X-ray Observatory page.