Data from NASA’s telescope is turned into music you can play

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The sonification of the Galactic Center, using data from NASA’s Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, has been translated into a new composition with sheet music and music. Working with a composer, this soundscape can be reproduced by musicians. The full score and scores for individual instruments are available at: https://chandra.si.edu/sound/symphony.html. Courtesy: NASA/CXC/SAO/Sophie Kastner

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The sonification of the Galactic Center, using data from NASA’s Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, has been translated into a new composition with sheet music and music. Working with a composer, this soundscape can be reproduced by musicians. The full score and scores for individual instruments are available at: https://chandra.si.edu/sound/symphony.html. Courtesy: NASA/CXC/SAO/Sophie Kastner

For millennia, musicians have looked to the heavens for inspiration. Now, a new collaboration makes it possible to use actual data from NASA telescopes as the basis for original music that can be played by humans.

As of 2020, the “sonification” project at NASA’s Chandra X-ray Center is translating digital data taken from telescopes into notes and sounds. This process allows the listener to experience the data through the senses of hearing rather than seeing it as images, a more common way of presenting astronomical data.

A new phase of the sonification project takes the data into another territory. Working with composer Sophie Kastner, the team developed versions of the data that can be played by musicians.

“It’s like writing a fictional story that’s largely based on real facts,” Kastner said. “We take data from space that has been translated into sound and give it a new and human twist.”

This pilot program focuses on data from a small region at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, home to a supermassive black hole. NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope and the retired Spitzer Space Telescope have studied this region, which stretches about 400 light-years across.

“We’ve been working with this data, taken in X-ray, visible and infrared light, for years,” said Kimberly Arcand, Chandra’s imaging and emerging technology scientist. “Translating that data into sound was a big step and now Sophie and I are trying something completely new for us again.”

In the process of data sonification, computers use algorithms to mathematically map the digital data from these telescopes into sounds that humans can perceive. However, human musicians have different capabilities than computers.



Kastner chose to focus on small parts of the image to make the data more reproducible for humans. This also allowed her to create spotlights on certain parts of the image that are easily overlooked when playing the 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 soundtrack for the image,” Kastner said. “I wanted to draw the listener’s attention to smaller events within the larger data set.”

The result of this pilot project is a new composition based on and influenced by real data from NASA telescopes, but with human insight.

“In some ways, it’s just another way for humans to interact with the night sky, just as they have throughout recorded history,” Arcand says. “We use different tools, but the concept of being inspired by the heavens to make art remains the same.”

Kastner hopes to expand this composite pilot project to other objects in Chandra’s sonification data collection. She is also looking to bring in other musical collaborators interested in using the data in their pieces.

Sophie Kastner’s work on the galactic center is titled “Where Parallel Lines Meet.” If you are a musician who wants 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 conducted by Charles-Eric LaFontaine on July 19, 2023 at McGill University.

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