NASA has discovered what a black hole looks like and releases a space “remix”


What does a black hole look like? Both “scary” and “ethereal beautiful,” according to people who listened to an audio clip posted to Twitter by NASA.

The US space agency tweeted what it called a remixed sonification of the black hole at the center of a cluster of galaxies known as Perseus, which lies about 240 million light-years from Earth. Sound waves identified nearly two decades ago were “extracted and made audible” for the first time this year, according to NASA.

The 34 seconds clip has set social media ablaze, with many stunned that anything, not to mention what sounds like an eerie, throaty moan, could escape a black hole.

But the idea that there is no sound in space is actually a “popular misconception”, the agency said. While most of space is a vacuum, with no means of propagation for sound waves, a galaxy cluster “contains vast amounts of gas that shrouds the hundreds or even thousands of galaxies within it, providing a medium for sound waves to travel”. it was explained.

The clip, which NASA described as a “Black Hole Remix”, was first released in early May to coincide with NASA Black Hole Week – but a tweet on Sunday by NASA’s Exoplanet Team looks great, with the clip being viewed by over 13 million people. time.

Sound waves were discovered in 2003, when after 53 hours of observationresearchers at NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory “found that pressure waves emitted by the black hole caused ripples in the hot cluster gas that could be translated into a note.”

But humans couldn’t hear that note because its frequency was too low – the equivalent of a B-flat, some 57 octaves below the center note of a piano, according to NASA. The Chandra astronomers therefore remixed the sound and increased its frequency by 57 and 58 octaves. “Another way of saying this is that they are heard 144 quadrillion and 288 quadrillion times higher than their original frequency,” NASA said.

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Kimberly Arcand, the sonification project’s lead researcher, said that when she first heard the sound in late 2021 – which she described as “a beautiful Hans Zimmer score with a moody level set to very high” – she jumped in excitement.

“It was such a wonderful representation of what existed in my mind,” the visualization scientist and head of emerging technologies at Chandra told The Washington Post. But it was also a “tipping point” for the sonification program as a whole in that it “really sparked people’s imaginations,” she said.

It also indicates future areas of research. “The idea that there are these supermassive black holes dotted all over the universe that… spit out amazing songs is a very tantalizing thing,” Arcand added.

A deep voice from deep space

Experts have warned that the sound of NASA’s remix isn’t exactly what you’d hear if you were somehow standing next to a black hole. Human ears would not be “sensitive enough to be able to pick up these sound waves,” Michael Smith, professor of astronomy at the University of Kent in England, told the Post. “But they’re there, they’re the right kind of frequency, and if we amplify it…then we could hear it,” Smith said. He compared it to a radio – “you turn it up, the volume is higher, then you can hear it.”

Arcand said the idea took shape during the coronavirus pandemic. She was working to turn x-ray light captured by Chandra’s orbiting telescope into images, including creating 3D models that could be printed to help visually impaired or blind people access this data. When the pandemic hit, this program became difficult to maintain at bay.

So, along with other colleagues, she decided to try something new: sonification, or the process of translating astronomical data into sound. The team included blind experts who inspired Arcand to “think differently” about the value of translating complex data sets into sound.

Looking at 2003 data from the Perseus galaxy cluster, she and her colleagues worked to determine the properties of pressure waves and deduce what sound they would make, then increased their frequency.

The decision to release the “resonification” of nearly two-decade-old data is part of the agency’s effort to use social media to communicate complex scientific discoveries in plain language to its millions of followers.

Through a partnership with Twitter, NASA found that “while its fans were enjoying great space photos and watching behind-the-scenes missions, there was a group of people who also wanted to know what space was like.” . the company wrote in a press release.

Some experts said the clip was confusing because it gave the impression that the sound “was sort of what you would hear if you were there”, Chris Lintott, professor of astrophysics at Oxford University, wrote Tuesday on Twitter – like having a recording device translating the sound of the galaxy cluster directly to Earth.

“Data sonification is fun and can be useful, especially for those who can’t see the images. But sometimes it’s used to make things ‘deeper’ than they are, like here,” added Lintott.

But Smith, a professor at the University of Kent, said “it makes perfect sense to say that there are sound waves [in the galaxy cluster]and if we were there, we could hear them if we had sensitive enough ears.

Still, he acknowledged, “these clusters of galaxies are so far apart that they have to make a lot of assumptions to make them what we might hear if we were out there.”

Arcand said she understands criticism from some corners that sonification risks oversimplifying a complex process — particularly because the mix of pressure, heat and gas enabling the sound waves in the cluster of Perseus galaxies is specific to this environment. But the value of sonification, she said, is that it got her to “question things in different ways.”

“It’s a superb representation of science, in my opinion, and quite a haunting sound!” Carole Mundell, head of astrophysics at the University of Bath in England, told the Post via email.

Supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy

The project, and NASA’s tweets about it, seem to have accomplished the space agency’s mission to share its science and research with the general public in a conversational way – even if not everyone was a fan of the sounds. remixed from the black hole.

Online, people seemed both thrilled and terrified, making colorful comparisons to the Lord of the Rings and Silent Hill series.

Others had fun with the audio clip, overlaying the image of a intergalactic pup on it or by remixing it with a its recreated thought to be closest to the voice of a mummy.

“I can confirm that the black hole noise released by NASA is the sound of hell,” said one black-humored Twitter user. wrote. Another one said: “A new genre has just been released: Cosmic Horror.”

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