How space sounds: The spectacular sound of NASA images

A few weeks ago, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope showed us its first impressive images of space, one of the most faithful to reality we have ever seen. However, now thanks to a peculiar technique we have a new way of exploring them: through sound.

A team of scientists, musicians, and members of the blind and visually impaired community worked to adapt the Webb data, to transform the data provided by images into musical compositions.

How space sounds: The spectacular sound of NASA images

This is how the images of space sound

As Matt Russo, musician and professor of physics at the University of Toronto, defines, “Our goal is to make Webb’s images and data understandable through sound, helping listeners create their own mental images .”

To achieve this, the musicians have assigned unique notes to the semi-transparent regions of the images and others to the very dense areas of gas and dust in the nebula, culminating in a complete soundscape.

The sonification technique scans the image from left to right creating a soundtrack in relation to what the image shows. For example, bright light sounds loud and high-pitched, but slightly less bright light sounds loud and lower-pitched. The dimmer, dust-obscured areas are represented by lower frequencies and clearer, undistorted notes.

From NASA data to sound

These generated audio tracks are a way of conjuring up the image for blind and low vision listeners , but they are also designed to captivate anyone who listens to them. This technique should not be confused with a representation of what is heard or not heard in space.

These tracks mapped data from the Webb to the sound, carefully composing music to accurately represent the details the team wanted listeners to focus on . In a way, these sonifications are like modern dance or abstract painting: they turn Webb’s images and data into a new medium to engage and inspire listeners.

“These compositions provide a different way to experience the detailed information in the early Webb data. Just as written descriptions are unique translations of visual images, sonifications also translate visual images into sounds by encoding information such as color, brightness, star locations, or water absorption signals .

According to survey results, it was shown that people who are blind or have low vision and even sighted people reported that they learned something about astronomical images by listening . The participants also shared that the listening experiences resonated deeply with them.

“Respondents’ reactions ranged from being shocked to feeling a little nervous. A significant finding was that sighted people reported that the experience helped them understand how people who are blind or have low vision access information differently.”

Christine Malec, a member of the blind and low vision community who also supports this project, said she experiences audio tracks with multiple senses. “When I first heard a sonification, it struck me in a visceral and emotional way that I imagine sighted people experience when they look up at the night sky.”