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Data Sonification: NASA

  • 25 Sep 2020
  • 7 min read

Why in News

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Chandra X-Ray Center (CXC) has unveiled a new ‘sonification’ project that transforms data from astronomical images into audio.

Key Points

  • Data Sonification:
    • It refers to the use of sound values to represent real data.
    • It is the auditory version of data visualisation.
    • In NASA’s Chandra (sonification) project, for instance, data is represented using a number of musical notes.
    • The birth of a star, a cloud of dust or even a black hole can be ‘heard’ as a high- or low-pitched sound.
  • Process of images into sound translation:
    • Telescopes in space collect digital data, in the form of ones and zeroes (binary), before converting them into images.
    • The images are visual representations of light and radiation of different wavelengths in space, that can’t be seen by the human eye.
    • The Chandra project has created a celestial concert by translating the same data into sound. Pitch and volume are used to denote the brightness and position of a celestial object or phenomenon.
      • Pitch is related to frequency of sound waves. Changing the number of vibrations per second changes the pitch.
      • Volume, or loudness, is related to the strength, intensity, pressure, or power of the sound. Bigger/amplified vibrations result in bigger/louder sounds.
    • The data has been collected by NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory, Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer Space Telescope.
    • Thus far, Project Chandra has released three examples - the Galactic Centre, Cassiopeia A, and Pillars of Creation Nebula.
    • The Galactic Centre
      • It is the rotational centre of the Milky Way galaxy.
      • It comprises a collection of celestial objects —
        • Neutron and white dwarf stars,
        • Clouds of dust and gas,
        • A supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A*(weighs four million times the mass of the sun).
    • Cassiopeia A
      • Located around 11,000 light years away from Earth in the northern Cassiopeia constellation.
      • Cassiopeia A is a well-known remnant of a once-massive star that was destroyed by a supernova explosion around 325 years ago.
    • The Pillars of Creation
      • The iconic Pillars of Creation is located in the centre of the Eagle Nebula (it is a constellation of stars), which is also known as Messier 16.
  • Significance of Data Sonification:
    • The sonification project was led by the Chandra X-ray Center in collaboration with NASA’s Universe of Learning Program (UoL), which aims to “incorporate NASA science content into the learning environment effectively and efficiently for learners of all ages”.
    • Over the years, NASA has been working towards making data about space accessible for a larger audience.
    • Sonification projects like this allow audiences - including visually-impaired communities - to experience space through data.

Chandra X-ray Project

  • The Chandra X-ray Observatory was launched by Space Shuttle Columbia in 1999.
  • The Chandra X-ray Observatory is part of NASA's fleet of "Great Observatories" along with the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope.
  • The "X-ray universe" refers to the universe as observed with telescopes designed to detect X-rays. X-rays are produced in the cosmos when matter is heated to millions of degrees. Such temperatures occur where high magnetic fields, or extreme gravity, or explosive forces exist in space.
  • The telescope is named after the Nobel Prize-winning Indian astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar.
    • Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar 's work implied that stars more massive than the so-called Chandrasekhar limit would eventually collapse to become objects so dense that not even light could escape it.
      • Chandrasekhar limit is the theoretical maximum mass a white dwarf star can have and still remain a white dwarf.
    • Although this finding was received with some skepticism at the time, it went on to form the foundation of the theory of black holes, eventually earning him a Nobel Prize in physics for 1983.

The Hubble Space Telescope

  • It is one of the largest and most versatile telescopes in service.
  • It is a space telescope that was launched into low Earth orbit (540km above Earth) in 1990.
  • Hubble’s four main instruments observe in the near ultraviolet, visible, and near infrared spectra.

Black Holes

  • The term ‘black hole’ was coined in the mid-1960s by American Physicist John Archibald Wheeler.
  • It refers to a point in space where the matter is so compressed as to create a gravity field from which even light cannot escape.
  • Black-holes were theorized by Albert Einstein in 1915.


  • A supernova is the explosion of a star. It is the largest explosion that takes place in space.
  • A supernova happens where there is a change in the core, or centre, of a star.

Neutron stars

  • Neutron stars comprise one of the possible evolutionary end-points of high mass stars.
  • Once the core of the star has completely burned to iron, energy production stops and the core rapidly collapses, squeezing electrons and protons together to form neutrons and neutrinos.
  • A star supported by neutron degeneracy pressure is known as a ‘neutron star’, which may be seen as a pulsar if its magnetic field is favourably aligned with its spin axis.

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