‘Sounds of Space’

'Sounds of Space'

Using a Very Low Frequency receiver at Halley Research Station we can pick up radio waves made by our planet. We use these waves to investigate the science of space weather storms, to help understand potential  space weather impacts on the climate system, and for lightning detection. We can also directly convert them into audible sounds and are exploiting these amazing natural ‘sounds of space’ in a number of collaborations. Scroll down to listen to the eerie noises of physics and find out more about the collaborations.

Our planet naturally produces a variety of radio emissions. These radio waves are generated by lightning activity or geomagnetic storms driven by the Sun, and are at the lower end of the radio spectrum, between 100 Hz and 10 kHz. They are best detected by large antennae, in space or on the ground. British Antarctic Survey detects these radio transmissions at its Antarctic Research Station, Halley, on the Brunt Ice Shelf, which lies beneath the Earth’s converging geomagnetic field lines.

Aurora over Halley Research Station in Antarctica. Photocredit: Antony Dubber

Sound waves are vibrations of air molecules, but these emissions – although they are within the frequency range of the human ear – are a form of electromagnetic radiation (oscillating electric and magnetic fields)  which cannot be heard directly. The recorded emissions can be directly converted to waveform audio files using suitable software. This is what enables us to hear the ‘sounds of space’.

Listen to some sounds made by our planet – Spherics, Whistlers and Chorus

Spherics: A ground-based Very Low Frequency receiver, such as the one at Halley, can detect signals from lightning activity. Each lightning flash emits a short radio pulse, known as a spheric, which covers a wide range of frequencies. These are heard as short cracks and appear as vertical lines in a spectrogram. Most of the spherics that are detected at Halley come from lightning activity over the Amazon and Congo basins, both over 8,000 km away!

 

Whistlers: Some of the radio waves from lightning strikes leave the atmosphere and leak into space, before being guided by the Earth’s magnetic field and received in the opposite hemisphere. Higher frequency waves travel faster than lower frequency waves, so whistlers have a characteristic descending tone.

 

Chorus: Unlike whistlers, chorus emissions are generated deep within the magnetosphere itself. Energetic electrons enter the magnetosphere during geomagnetic storms driven by the Sun, causing the Earth’s beautiful aurora and generating chorus emissions.

 

‘Sounds of Space’ talk and performance

Nigel Meredith has been working with artist-engineer Diana Scarborough to find novel ways of visualising space weather data. The ‘sounds of space’ formed the starting point of this exciting venture and inspired Diana to create soundscapes by combining the mesmerising sounds with original visual sequences. We have since engaged with leading Australian composer Kim Cunio and professional dancers Becky Byers and Felix Denton to develop the works into a multidisciplinary show. Our first show, which included a scientific presentation followed by a performance with animation, contemporary dance and soundscapes, was performed at the Cambridge Science Festival in March 2018. Following on from the success of this event, Kim Cunio travelled from Australia to play live in our second show at the BAS Aurora Innovation Centre in November 2018.

Watch the ‘Sounds of Space’ Live broadcast (from Friday 16th November, 2-3pm)

In October 2019 a new immersive performance of the ‘sounds of space’ was showcased at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. This show included vibrant, experimental, contemporary dance, in which the dancers moved through the audience and space as they responded  to the sound-led, data-driven journey from Antarctica to beyond the galaxy. The dynamic performance was followed by a serene meditative experience, led by Diana Scarborough, featuring ‘sounds’ from the VLF receiver at Halley, images of Antarctica and the beautiful piano music of Kim Cunio.

Highlights from the ‘Sounds of Space’ at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. Filmed by Eileen Haring-Woods and Becky Byers and edited by Diana Scarborough.

We have also given talks to promote the ‘sounds of space’ and our art-science collaborations at the Polar Educators International Conference in Cambridge in April 2019, at the Bluedot Festival, Jodrell Bank Observatory in July 2019 and at the Cambridge University Astronomical Society in March 2020.

Short films at the Venice Biennale

Nine one-minute short films, based on the animations, music and ‘sounds’ from our show, were shown as part of a film installation at the world famous Venice Biennale in 2019. The installation, which was screened from 8th May to 4th June at the historic Palazzo Pesaro Papafava, is part of ‘Alive in the Universe’, an art-film project that explores our emotional explanation of the universe through arts and ideas.

Antarctic Ice’, one of our short art-films screened at the Venice Biennale.

Listen to the ‘sounds of space’ accompanied by music from a grand piano

Aurora Musicalis is a sonic experiment, combining the ‘sounds’ from the VLF receiver at Halley with original music. The new work, released on 6th May, allows us to hear the ‘sounds of space’ accompanied by Kim Cunio’s original music played on a grand piano. The complete 90 minute work comprises 11 tracks revealing the diurnal variations of the audio frequency signals, collected from Halley in one day with piano music also put together in one day. The album, available for free on bandcamp, also includes a 3-minute compilation, sonic highlights from the 24 hour period, set to the music of the opening track and the highlights on their own so that you can create your own musical or visual response to the raw Halley ‘sounds’. 

“The benefits of the music are multiple, they reduce stress and pain, improve concentration, rest at night, among many others.” Fahrenheit Magazine

Since its release music from Aurora Musicalis has featured on several fantastic radio shows, including Sunday Night Chill Out on Manx FM, the Fogcast on Resonance FM, the Space Station and the Independents Only Ambient Special on Skylab Radio and on Clubglobal on Cambridge 105 radio.

Aurora Musicalis: image credit: Anya Wotton, The Australian National University

The album includes a music video by Diana Scarborough featuring the 3 minute compilation accompanied by some beautiful Antarctic imagery from the BAS image collection. This video recently made waves in the art world, being the first exhibit in ecoconsciousness, an online art catalogue by ecoartspace.

Aurora Musicalis: music video

‘Sounds of Space’ feature in space simulation game

The ‘sounds of space’ from Halley have been incorporated into the exploration gameplay in Elite Dangerous. In this unique collaboration Nigel Meredith worked with Frontier Developments, the creators of Elite Dangerous, to incorporate the eerie sounds into the new gameplay. In any one of over 400 billion stellar systems, players can now use a new analysis mode to discover more about their surroundings. The new mode, called the Full Spectrum System Scanner, features the simulated sounds of radio emissions from exoplanets in remote stellar systems based on the Halley VLF recordings. The update, entitled Elite Dangerous: Beyond – Chapter 4, was released on 11th December 2018.

Elite Dangerous| Frontier Developments

Elite Dangerous is a space-flight simulation video game in which players take control of their own starship and can fight, explore and travel throughout a realistic three-dimensional model of the Milky Way galaxy. Elite Dangerous, launched in 2014, is the fourth game in the Elite video game series and, as of 15th January 2019, cumulative sales of Elite Dangerous had exceeded 4.3 million franchise units.

Halley Research Station

The sample sounds on this page were produced from radio waves detected by the Halley VLF receiver at Halley VI, Antarctica. It is a good location to record the ‘sounds of space’ as it is magnetically connected to the outer radiation belt where Extremely Low and Very Low Frequency signals are generated, and is electromagnetically “quiet” as it lies far from man-made sources.

VLF Receiver, Halley VI, Antarctica

Halley ringtones

Surprise your friends with an out-of-this-world ringtone. Choose from this selection of eerie ‘sounds’, in mp3 format, recorded by the Halley VLF receiver:

chorus

chorus and whistlers

chorus, hiss and whistlers

triggered emissions

Upcoming Event

Thursday 12th November 18:00 GMT, Ecoart TECH webinar, Nigel Meredith and Diana Scarborough join ecoartspace and other media artists to talk about art-science collaborations

Further reading

1. Meredith N.P., and A.D. Wynne, Sounds of space at Cambridge Festival of Ideas, Astronomy and Geophysics Forum, 5th November 2019.

2. Meredith, N. P., Turning the sounds of space into art, Astronomy and Geophysics, 60, 2, https://doi.org/10.1093/astrogeo/atz097, 2019.

3. Stone, M., Listen to the creepy noises picked up at a space weather station in Antarctica, Earther, 26th December 2018.

4. Hall, C., Elite’s new exploration system brings even more real-world science into the game, Polygon, 4th December 2018.

Further listening

1. Listen to Nigel Meredith and Kim Cunio talking about Aurora Musicalis with Hamish McDonald on the ABC Radio National Breakfast show, 7th May 2020.

2. Find out more about the ‘sounds of space’ and how they are used in Elite Dangerous, Elite Dangerous Live Broadcast, 7th November 2019.

3. Listen to Nigel Meredith talking about the ‘sounds of space’ with BBC Earth’s Emily Knight, BBC Earth Podcast “Looking Up”, 9th May, 2019. The ‘sounds of space’ are the second story in this episode and start around minute eight.

4. Listen to a larger selection of the Earth’s amazing natural radio emissions recorded by the Halley VLF Receiver, Elite:Dangerous Earthsounds, on SoundCloud, 26thDecember 2018.

 



Halley VLF receiver

The Halley VLF receiver listens to very-low frequency radio waves as part of a network of receivers located all over the polar regions. The data gathered by this network is used by …