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Scientists translate space data into sounds

27 March 2024

A new project is seeking to “open the Universe for everyone” by helping people with low vision engage with space discoveries.

Image: X-ray: NASA/CXC/INAF/M.Guarcello et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI
Image: X-ray: NASA/CXC/INAF/M.Guarcello et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI

When you travel somewhere where they speak a language you can’t understand, it’s usually important to find a way to translate what’s being communicated to you. In some ways, the same can be said about scientific data collected from cosmic objects. 

A telescope like NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory captures X-rays, which are invisible to the human eye, from sources across the cosmos. Similarly, the James Webb Space Telescope captures infrared light, also invisible to the human eye. 

These different kinds of light are transmitted down to Earth packed up in the form of ones and zeroes. From there, the data are transformed into a variety of formats – from plots to spectra to images.

This last category – images – is arguably what telescopes are best known for. For most of astronomy's long history, however, most people who are blind or have low vision (BLV) have not been able to fully experience the data that these telescopes have captured. 

NASA’s Universe of Sound data sonification program, with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and NASA’s Universe of Learning, translates visual data of objects in space into sonified data. 

All telescopes – including Chandra, Webb, the Hubble Space Telescope, plus dozens of others – in space need to send the data they collect back to Earth as binary code, or digital signals. Typically, astronomers and others turn these digital data into images, which are often spectacular and make their way into everything from websites to pillowcases.

The music of the spheres
By taking these data through another step, however, experts on this project mathematically map the information into sound. This data-driven process is not a reimagining of what the telescopes have observed, it is yet another kind of translation. Instead of a translation from French to Mandarin, it’s a translation from visual to sound. 

Releases from the Universe of Sound sonification project have been immensely popular with non-experts, from viral news stories with over two billion people potentially reached, according to press metrics, to triple the usual website traffic. 

But how are such data sonifications perceived by people, particularly members of the BLV community? How do data sonifications affect participant learning, enjoyment, and exploration of astronomy? Can translating scientific data into sound help enable trust or investment, emotionally or intellectually, in scientific data? Can such sonifications help improve awareness of accessibility needs that others might have?

Listening closely
This study used sonified NASA data of three astronomical objects. The researchers surveyed blind or low-vision and sighted individuals to better understand participant experiences of the sonifications, relating to their enjoyment, understanding, and trust of the scientific data. 

Data analyses from 3,184 sighted, blind or low-vision participants yielded significant self-reported learning gains and positive experiential responses. 

The results showed that astrophysical data engaging multiple senses like the sonifications could establish additional avenues of trust, increase access, and promote awareness of accessibility in sighted and blind or low-vision communities. In short, sonifications helped people access and engage with the Universe.

The hope is that sonifications can help communicate the scientific discoveries from our Universe with more audiences, and open the door to the cosmos just a little wider for everyone.

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