NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has shared a new way to experience space, with three new “sonifications” which turn visual astronomy data into sounds.
The first sonification is of Westerlund 2, a cluster of young stars which have been imaged in the optical wavelength by Hubble and in the X-ray wavelength by Chandra. As the sound moves from left to right across the image, brighter lights are represented by louder sounds, and lights toward the top of the image are higher in pitch.
The second sonification is of the Tycho supernova remnant, with sounds that start in the center of the remnant and move outward. The reddest colors, which indicate iron, are represented by lower notes, and the bluest colors which indicate sulfur are represented by higher notes.
Finally, the sonification of the galaxy M87 shows the location of the famous giant black hole at its center, with the sound sweeping around the image like a radar. Light that is closest to the center of the galaxy is represented by higher pitch notes, and light farther out from the center is represented by lower notes.
As well as engaging the general public with science, one of the main aims of the project was to enable blind or visually impaired people to appreciate the wonder of space, Chandra Visualization Lead Scientist Kimberly Arcand explained.
“The sonifications are tested and verified with experts and non-experts who are blind or low vision (e.g., astrophysicist, amateur astronomer, students),” she said. “Each sonification is created to best portray the scientific data in a way that makes the most sense for the specific data, keeping it accurately represented and telling the story, while also providing a new way of conveying meaning through sound.”
Arcand also said she hopes her team can continue to make more sonifications in the future as they have been so well received. “From user testing of the sonifications with different audiences (from students to adults who are blind or low vision), the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Indeed, emotion-inducingly positive,” she said.
“We definitely hope to keep continuing to work on applying more universal design to our astronomical data overall. How can we not? We’re excited to play a part in making the Universe accessible to as many people as possible.”
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