That’s not the ramblings of some new age guru trying to sell you his album of “interpretations” of Earth song sensitively performed on acoustic guitar and synthesizer, but instead an announcement from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In fact, not only does NASA know that the world is singing out in space, they can actually let you listen to what that song sounds like.
The piece of music is, as NASA’s announcement accompanying the music’s debut explains, “an electromagnetic phenomenon caused by plasma waves in Earth’s radiation belts. For years, ham radio operators on Earth have been listening to them from afar.” The signals were picked up in this case by something called the Electric and Magnetic Field Instrument Suite and Integrated Science receiver, built by a team at the University of Iowa headed up by Craig Kletzing. “This is what the radiation belts would sound like to a human being if we had radio antennas for ears,” he says of the music, which he called “chorus,” before going on to point out that the music isn’t actually music as we understand it. Instead of acoustic waves, this music is the result of radio waves that oscillate at acoustic frequencies, as detected by the EMFISIS receiver.
“One of things we noticed right away is how clear the chorus sounds in the recording,” Kletzing is quoted as saying in NASA’s official release. “That’s because our data is sampled at 16 bits, the same as a CD, which has not been done before in the radiation belts. This makes the data very high quality and shows that our instrument is very, very healthy.” The music was actually recorded during the 60-day “checkout phase” of the Radiation Belt Storm Probes that Kletzing’s EMFISIS receivers are connected to, in preparation for a mission to search out whether there is such a thing as “killer electrons” that are dangerous to both astonauts and equipment in orbit around the Earth.
The fact that the data is sampled at the same rate as a CD isn’t entirely accidental, as it seems that Kletzing may have less-than-secret audiophile ambitions for “chorus”‘ future; in fact, he hopes that it’ll be possible to create a stereo version of the music in the near future, to replace the mono version that NASA has released. “We have two spacecraft with two receivers, so a stereo recording is possible.”
The problem with “chorus” is that it’s just one track. Even if it captures the public’s attention, where’s that all-important follow-up hit? And how will NASA be able to promote the track properly without having the plasma waves available for personal appearances in record stores and on television?