Monday, October 22, 2012

Listen to the sounds of space

It sounds like a cliche.

Multiple high-pitched whines, up and down scales that sound like they're being played on a clown's slide whistle, eerie tones worthy of a theremin.  It might as well be the score and sound effects from a 1950s, grade-b, scifi, pop trash movie.

But they are the actual recordings from space.  The sounds were acquired by one of NASA's Radiation Storm Belt Probes.  These space probes orbit within the Earth's radiation belts, a dangerous field of highly-charged particles.  The chirpy sounds, called "chorus" by astronomers, are fascinating to hear...and actually a bit ominous as well. 

One recording of immediate interest is that of "the whistler." As described in the linked NPR piece, a whistler is the sound of a lightning strike on Earth.  The strike emits a vast range of radio signals, spewing out into space, giving the listener that unique, as I call it "slide whistle" sound.  Of course, the amount of "solar wind" being kicked out by the Sun at any given moment has its effects as well.

Not only does this make me consider the stand-by quote of "the universe is stranger than we can imagine," it justifies all those aforementioned sound effects.  Yes, the "cheesy" ones.  They have an actual basis in fact.  The recorded sounds also cause my imagination to percolate.  For years, both Americans and Russians joked that there was a "great galactic ghoul" that struck down our probes as they headed for Mars.  Given our dicey record of reaching the Red Planet, it's easy to see how that joke came to be.  The recordings from our radiation belts sound like such an entity, howling and mocking us for our puny, acephalous space efforts of the past few years.

While listening to those sounds, a "ghoul" almost doesn't sound so far fetched after all. 

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