The breathtaking images of distant nebulas captured by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope that mesmerized the world in July have been turned into music through a technique called data sonification.
Three sonifications of images from the first James Webb Space Telescope data release have now been made available to the public. The sonifications are based on the iconic “Cosmic Cliffs in the Carina Nebula” image and the photograph of the Southern Ring Nebula, both of which were part of the first Webb data release on July 13. A third sonification based on Webb’s first exoplanet atmosphere spectrum, that of the hot gas giant planet WASP-96 b, completes the set.
Each of the unique musical pieces is different. The awe-inspiring wall of reddish dust in the Carina Nebula makes a rather pleasurable cosmic burble, while the Southern Ring Nebula generates more of a horror-movie-like listening experience.
The sonifications translate data into sounds based on predefined parameters. For example, each star in the two nebulas produces a distinct sound based on, for example, its size, brightness and age.
The sonifications are NASA’s way to make the James Webb Space Telescope science accessible to visually impaired enthusiasts as part of the Universe of Learning project.
“These compositions provide a different way to experience the detailed information in Webb’s first data,” Quyen Hart, a senior education and outreach scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, said in a statement. “Similar to how written descriptions are unique translations of visual images, sonifications also translate the visual images by encoding information, like color, brightness, star locations or water absorption signatures, as sounds.”
A team of scientists and musicians, supported by a member of the visually impaired community, worked on the sonifications to allow listeners to distinguish the key features of each image.
“Music taps into our emotional centers,” said Matt Russo, a musician and physics professor at the University of Toronto, who collaborates on the project. “Our goal is to make Webb’s images and data understandable through sound — helping listeners create their own mental images.”