What does a black hole sound like? NASA has an answer

A bounty of black holes surround the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way.

NASA/CXXC/Columbia University/C. Healy et al.

For the first time in history, Earthlings could hear the sound of a black hole: a low-pitched moan, as if a heavy, squeaky door was being opened over and over.

NASA released 35-second audio clip The sound was released earlier this month using electromagnetic data picked from the Perseus Galaxy Cluster, about 240 million light-years away.

The data has been around since it was collected nearly 20 years ago by Chandra X-ray Observatory. The decision to turn it into sound came only recently, as part of NASA’s effort over the past two years to translate stunning space photography into something the ear can appreciate.

“I started the first 10 years of my career really paying attention only to visual appearance, and I just realized that I had done a complete disservice to people who weren’t visually literate or to people who were blind or visually impaired,” NASA optician Kimberly Arcand told NPR in an interview with Weekend Edition.

While Perseus’ voice attempts to replicate what a black hole actually looks like, Arcand’s other “sonication” are somewhat creative image transfers. In those fanciful interpretations, each type of matter—gas cloud or stars—gets a different sound; Items near the top of the images appear higher in tone; The brightest spots are the louder.

For more examples of NASA sonication, go to the agency world of sound web page. Or, read on to learn more from Arcand about the project.

Interview highlights

About how to make a black hole sound

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What we’re listening to is basically re-sonication, so sonicating the data for an actual sound wave in this group of galaxies where there’s this supermassive black hole in the core that’s kind of burping and sending all these waves out, if you’ll do it. And the scientists who originally studied the data were able to figure out what the observation was. And it was basically a flat B sound about 57 octaves below middle C. So we took that sound the universe was singing and put it back into the human hearing range – because we certainly can’t hear 57 octaves below middle C.

About sonication of an image of the center of the Milky Way

So, we are actually taking the data and extrapolating the information we need. We take real interest in the scientific story to make sure that the conversion from light to sound makes sense for people, especially for people who are blind or have low vision. So our Milky Way — that inner region — that’s really a biome where there’s a lot of frenetic activity going on. But if we look at a different galaxy that is perhaps a little quieter, or more turbulent in its core, it might look very different.

­­­­­­­­­­­­On the sonication of the image of the Pillars of Creation from the Eagle Nebula in the Serpent constellation:

This is like a star baby nursery. These tall columns of gas and dust where stars are forming and you’re listening to the interplay between x-ray information and optical information and it’s really trying to give you a piece of the text.

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These generated audio clips can bring a bit of emotion to data that might otherwise sound vague and abstract.

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