The world can now listen to some of the first full-colour images captured by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). This is because NASA has translated the Webb images into sound. 

Through this new, immersive way to explore Webb’s first full-colour images, listeners can enter the complex soundscape of the Cosmic Cliffs in the Carina Nebula, enjoy the contrasting tones of two images that depict the Southern Ring Planetary Nebula, and determine the individual data points in a transmission spectrum of hot gas giant exoplanet WASP-96 b. 

According to NASA, a team of scientists, musicians, and a member of the blind and visually impaired community worked together to adapt the data from the world’s most powerful space telescope. The team received support from the Webb mission and NASA’s Universe of Learning. 

In a statement released by NASA, Matt Russo, a musician and physics professor at the University of Toronto, said the team’s goal is to make Webb’s images and data understandable through sound, and to help listeners create their own “mental images”. 

Listen To The Cosmic Cliffs In The Carina Nebula

NASA released Webb’s near-infrared image of the Cosmic Cliffs in the Carina Nebula in July this year. Now, the image has been mapped to a “symphony of sounds“. The semi-transparent, gauzy regions of the Carina Nebula, and the dense areas of gas and dust have been assigned unique notes. This culminated in a buzzing soundscape. 

According to NASA, the sonification scans the Cosmic Cliffs from left to right. People can listen to a vibrant soundtrack, which represents the detail in the gigantic, gaseous cavity that has the appearance of a mountain range. 

Blue hues and windy, drone-like sounds represent the gas and dust in the top half of the image. The ruddy shades of orange and red seen in the bottom half of the image have a clearer, more melodic composition. 

Brighter light in the Cosmic Cliffs is represented through louder sounds. The vertical position of light determines the frequency of sound. For instance, the bright light near the top of the image of the Carina Nebula sounds loud and high. Meanwhile, the bright light near the middle of the image is loud and lower-pitched. 

Lower frequencies and clearer, undistorted notes represent the dimmer, dust-obscured areas.

Listen To The Southern Ring Planetary Nebula

Webb captured the Southern Ring Planetary Nebula in two different filters of light — near-infrared light and mid-infrared light. NASA has adapted both the images to sound.

The colours in the images of the Southern Ring Planetary Nebula were mapped to pitches of sound. This means that the frequencies of light were directly converted to frequencies of sound. 

According to NASA, near-infrared light is represented by a higher range of frequencies at the beginning of the track. Mid-way through the image, the wavelengths change. Therefore, lower notes have been used to reflect the longer wavelengths or lower frequencies of light. The mid-infrared includes these longer wavelengths of light.

In the video for the sonification of the Southern Ring Planetary Nebula, one can hear notes aligning with the centres of the near- and mid-infrared images, at 15 seconds and at 44 seconds. 

At the centres of the near- and mid-infrared images, the stars at the centre of the “action” appear. The infrared view of Webb has brought the nebula’s second star into full view, along with exceptional structures created as the stars shape the gas and dust around them. The image has captured the “final performance” of a dying star in fine detail. The star at the centre of the nebula has been sending out rings of gas and dust for thousands of years in all directions. 

The track begins with the sonification of the near-infrared image. Only one star is heard clearly in the sonification for the near-infrared image. The star is heard with a louder clang.

In the second half of the track, which represents the mid-infrared image, listeners can hear a low note just before a higher note. The fact that a low note can be heard before the higher note means that two stars were detected in mid-infrared light. The lower note represents the star that created the Southern Ring Planetary Nebula. Meanwhile, the higher note represents the star that appears brighter and larger.

Listen To The Exoplanet WASP-96 b

Webb has imaged the distinct signature of water, along with evidence for clouds and haze, in the atmosphere surrounding a hot, puffy, gas giant, known as WASP-96 b. It is an exoplanet orbiting a distant Sun-like star. Webb has revealed the steamy atmosphere of the exoplanet in detail.

WASP-96 b contains clear signatures of water. NASA has translated the individual data points of the transmission spectrum of the water in the planet’s atmosphere into sound. From bottom to top, the y-axis shown in the image ranges from less to more light blocked. The x-axis represents the wavelength of light in microns. From left to right, the x-axis ranges from 0.6 microns to 2.8 microns. The pitches of each data point correspond to the frequencies of light each point represents, according to NASA. 

For instance, the longer wavelengths of light have lower frequencies and are heard as power pitches. The volume of the sound indicates the amount of light detected in each data point.

NASA has represented the four signatures through the sound of water droplets falling. The sounds simplify the data, aligning only to the highest points. 

The main objective behind the sonification of Webb’s images is to support blind and low-vision listeners. The audio tracks also aim to captivate anyone who tunes in.

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