NASA releases a freaky audio recording of a black hole

3 mins
12 May 2022
NASA releases a freaky audio recording of a black hole

What does space sound like? Like a Hans Zimmer score, apparently

image Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

words Eve Walker

Think space has no sound? Well, that’s a popular misconception. As part of Black Hole Week, NASA have remastered the sound of a black hole in the Perseus galaxy cluster to allow the human ear to hear it. Scaled up around 57 octaves above its actual pitch, the recording is said to feature the lowest note in the universe, and it sounds ridiculously eerie.

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There is a common false idea that black holes don’t make noise – NASA has said that people assume there’s no sound in space due to “the fact that most of space is essentially a vacuum, providing no medium for sound waves to propagate through”.

But in reality, the sound is just very different from any one we’re used to hearing in our day to day lives. A galaxy cluster has an abundance of gas, which provides this necessary medium. In 2003, astronomers discovered that black holes cause ripples in galaxy clusters, the largest structures in the cosmos, and that this can be translated into sound using data sonification.

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Astronomers previously identified sound waves from the black hole in the Perseus galaxy cluster, which is around 250 million light years away from Earth, but it is only recently that they have been extracted and made audible to the public for the first time. The radar-like scan around the image on the galaxy cluster allows us to hear the sound waves emitted; Scientists extract the waves in radial directions, meaning outwards from the centre, and resynthesise them for the human ear.

NASA and the Chandra X-ray Centre have collaborated on a catalogue of celestial “sonifications”, converting patterns in the electromagnetic spectrum into sound we can hear. Other existing sonifications in the catalogue include the sounds of our galaxy’s core, supernovae, and nebulae. While other “sounds” have been captured, the soundwaves extracted in the Perseus galaxy cluster can be more accurately classified as such. The Chandra X-ray centre says that “this sonification is unlike any other done before because it revisits the actual sound waves discovered” in their data.

Aside from sounding like something out of Star Wars or a Hans Zimmer score, the sound waves of the black hole at the centre of Perseus are much more than a spooky sonification. Steve Allen, co-investigator in the study, says that these sound waves could in fact be integral to figuring out how galaxy clusters grow. Astronomers are now analysing other galaxy clusters for similar sound waves.

The sounds of space are really at our fingertips now too. Recently, scientists shared that Mars has two speeds of sound. Last year, NASA shared the sound of Butterfly Nebula (a nursery of stars – cute!), created through data sonification as it soars through space at more than 600,000 mph. It’s located approximately 2,500 to 3,800 light years away from Earth. The clip is a reimagining of deep space through music, converting data to sound. Each wavelength of light is assigned a different group of instruments to create a “symphony of soothing sounds”. The wings of the nebula, for example, are linked to strings, and the stars a harp.

Stick on the eerie sounds of space at your next afterparty.

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