Unnerving ‘Sounds’ Emanating From a Black Hole Recorded by NASA

We can now hear what a black hole sounds like 250 million light-years away.
sound nasa galaxy

NASA scientists have created technology that turns visual data from space into sound by using a new sonification technique – translation of astronomical data into sound. 

People will increasingly be able to experience and explore space through the medium of sound. Consider the possibilities that this could mean for blind and visually impaired people interested in participating in astronomy and space exploration.

Scientists believe that the method has scientific value, too. Transforming visual datasets can enable people to hear details in the information that would otherwise be missed. Who knows what scientific discoveries may come about due to analyzing data this way.

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This isn’t just some fanciful technology; scientists have based it on actual observations of existing sounds in space. This technology is developed using findings such as in 2003 when astronomers observed a supermassive black hole in the Perseus cluster and detected acoustic waves propagating through the surrounding gas.

Hearth and Soul nebulas and Perseus double cluster Hubble palette
Perseus double cluster by Oliver Gutiérrez Suárez under CC BY-SA 4.0

Scientists were able to amplify the acoustic waves up 57 and 58 octaves so that we could hear them. This is the first time such sound waves have been extracted and made audible.

They have also used the same technology to apply sonification to an image of a colossal jet of material being launched at high speeds from an area immediately outside the supermassive black hole. Words can’t adequately describe a phenomenon like that, but now people can experience it with sound.

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Sonification of xy shape components by P K under CC BY 2.0

It should be explained that not all of the data this technology turns into audible sound were sound waves. Scientists are creating an illusion of how we can hear and perceive light at different frequencies.

Scientists have enhanced this technology to give people a listening experience of space because many sounds in space, such as the find in 2003, would be at pitches inaudible to human hearing. 

Relationship between sound and heat

Space scientists aren’t just interested in these sounds to satisfy their audible curiosity. They have observed a relationship between the movement of heat and sound waves in space. They consider that sound waves moving through the intracluster medium is one mechanism that enables the intracluster medium can be heated as they transport energy through the plasma.

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The intracluster medium is where gas and plasma drift between the galaxies in galaxy clusters. The gas and plasma there are denser and hotter than the intergalactic medium outside galaxy clusters.

Listen for yourself

Have you ever put your ear next to a sea shell and heard what some might describe as a white noise like the sea? Do you remember what it sounds like? Ever dropped a stone to the bottom of a well and heard the hollow ring after the stone went plop? Ever taken a tour of an echoey cave? What would you expect a black hole to sound like if you put your ear up close? How would you describe the sound of a black hole in space? Listen to the clip below and decide how it should be described for yourself.

What’s next?

As well as the sonification of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Perseus cluster, scientists have also applied sonification to a supermassive black hole, M87. 

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M87 was the first-ever black hole to be visualized due to collaboration between scientists using different technologies. Sonification was possible because of images from the Event Horizon Telescope, X-rays from Chandra, visible light from Hubble, and radio wavelengths from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array.

These audio sounds will be included with the other incredible presentations on NASA’s black hole week. This will be a real game-changer for promoting access to knowledge about space.


Feature image credit: NASA

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