For several years, NASA has been producing sonification in which images of space are transformed into sound sequences so that both people with visual impairments and general audiences who are interested in experiencing space in a new way can enjoy them. Now, NASA has taken the concept a step further by turning the space image into an original composition performed by a group of musicians.
The image used as the basis for the compositions is of the center of the Milky Way galaxy, a bustling region of gas filaments, X-rays and a supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A*. The image combines data from Chandra, Hubble and Spritzer to bring together data from X-ray, visible light and infrared wavelengths.
The project brought in composer Sophie Kästner to interpret the image in sheet music for instruments including strings, piano, flue, clarinet and percussion.
“It’s like writing a fictional story that’s largely based on real facts,” Castner said in a statement. “We’re taking data from space that’s been translated into sound and putting a new and human twist on it.”
Kastner said he took inspiration by focusing on certain parts of the image and creating sound landscapes that reflected the content of each area. “I like to think of it as creating a concise description of the data, and look at it almost as if I’m writing a film score for the image,” Kastner said. “I wanted to draw the listener’s attention to small phenomena in large data sets.”
The Chandra team working on sonification described setting the images to music as an extension of their work, making space images accessible and interesting to everyone.
“We’ve been working with these data taken in X-ray, visible and infrared light for years,” said Chandra Visualization and Emerging Technologies scientist Kimberly Arcand. “Translating these data into sound was a big step forward, and now with Sophie, we are again trying something new for us.”
This creation is a pilot, but the team hopes to create more creations inspired by other space images in the future.
“In some ways, it’s another way for humans to interact with the night sky as they have throughout recorded history,” Arcand says. “We are using different tools, but the concept of being inspired by heaven to create art remains the same.”