The Juno spacecraft zipped by Earth recently on its way to Jupiter, and the people of Earth broadcast a collective “hi” at the passing probe in Morse code (**** **). NASA JPL processed the data from hundreds of ham radio operators broadcasting “hi” nearly simultaneously, to reveal the sound in the video above. The extra wooshing noise is the sound of our planet’s magnetosphere. Sounds like space!
One particular tool astronomers use to “look” up at the heavens is the radio telescope. As space itself expands, the energy waves traveling through it get stretched out into lower and lower frequencies, far lower than red or even infrared. The best way to observe these waves is with radio telescopes. These telescopes, such as the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico or the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile, are essentially giant “ears” pointed at the sky in order to “hear” what’s going on out in space.
In 1960, Bell Labs built a big antenna as a receiver for early satellite transmissions. Two employees, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, wanted to use the antenna to collect radio astronomy data from nearby galaxies. When they did so, they discovered a consistent and at the time inexplicable static coming from everywhere in the sky. No matter what direction the antenna was pointing, the same uniform static was found. It turned out to be the ancient birth pangs of the universe itself, the cosmic background radiation. NASA would launch satellites in later years, the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) in 1989 and the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) in 2001, to collect data on the cosmic background radiation in order to better understand the origins of our universe. Some of this data has been sonified (made into sound), and the results are fascinating.
Turning data received from radio telescopes into sound is one way astronomers can better conceptualize the data. Listening to these sonifications of cosmic background radiation, it’s easy to hear how the energy from the early universe got stretched out as space itself expanded. In 1991, astronomer Dr. Fiorella Terenzi released an album of such space music titled Music from the Galaxies. This album is generated from real astronomical data, but it sounds like something out of a science fiction movie from the 1950s.
Speaking of science fiction movies from the 1950s… In 1956, the film Forbidden Planet was released. It was the first feature film to have its musical soundtrack generated entirely electronically. The pioneers behind this score, Louis and Bebe Barron, were electronic music enthusiasts who used oscilloscopes, patches, filters, reel-to-reel tape recorders, and other equipment to create a symphonic cacophony of electronic noise. The Barrons were credited on the film as the makers of “electronic tonalities” as opposed to a musical orchestration. While their sounds were remarkable, they were deemed too unusual to be considered “proper music”.
Léon Theremin was an inventor, a musician, a professor, and even a spy for the KGB. The instrument which bears his name, the Theremin, is a device which produces electrically generated tones. However, the Theremin is quite capable of more than just the eerie space sounds associated with science fiction, as the clip below of Theremin himself performing music with his invention will demonstrate.
Fiorella Terenzi, Louis and Bebe Barron, Léon Theremin, and more are all musicians who have made unusual music with unusual instruments. But the human fascination with unusual sounds isn’t merely an electronic phenomenon. Other unusual instruments include the musical saw, Luigi Russolo’s Intonarumori, or Benjamin Franklin’s Glass Armonica. It would be fascinating to hear a “space music” performance made with such non-electronic instruments.
The Space Age doesn’t have a monopoly on unusual sounds, though it has helped to establish the musical genre of “space music”. The noises of the world, and the cosmos, fascinate me and I’m happy that I’m finally creating “space music” of my own.