The Sound of Saturn’s Rings

by Nancy Atkinson on January 20, 2010

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This wonderful video was posted by Jennifer Ouellette on Discovery News, and I just had to share it. The sounds are actual recordings picked up by the Cassini spacecraft. I have heard the eerie audio before, but never had previously seen it paired up with moving images from the mission. The radio emissions, called Saturn kilometric radiation, are generated along with Saturn’s auroras, or northern and southern lights. Cassini’s Radio and Plasma Wave Science (RPWS) instrument takes high-resolution measurements that allow scientists to convert the radio waves into audio recordings by shifting the frequencies down into the audio frequency range.

You can hear the raw audio at this website from the University of Iowa. A physicist there, Don Gurnett, builds plasma wave receivers for NASA, and he’s been collecting recordings of space sounds from all the major missions, including Voyager I, Galileo, and Cassini.

These recording inspired composer Terry Riley to put together a suite of space music for the Kronos Quartet called “Sun Rings.” I had the opportunity to see a live performance, which combines live music, the sounds from space and images from space projected in the background, and it is quite striking. You can hear samples in this link from NPR. Riley has said, “Space is surely the realm of dreams and imagination and a fertile feeding ground for poets and musicians.”

Ouellete mentioned another piece of music inspired by Saturn’s rings. There is a new DVD now available featuring images of Saturn’s rings set a 10-minute-long pice called “Anillos” (“rings” in Spanish), composed by Grammy-nominated Cornell University music professor Roberto Sierra in 2008 for the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences. You can hear samples of the music at this link, and if you like it, you can buy the “Anillos” DVD from Buffalo Street Books for $15, just by emailing buffalostreetbooks@hotmail.com.

Source: Discovery Space

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Lawrence B. Crowell January 20, 2010 at 4:32 PM

This sounds like those synthesized sounds produced on old 1950 Science Fiction films.

LC

IVAN3MAN January 20, 2010 at 6:11 PM

@ Lawrence B. Crowell,

The actual device used for those 1950s Sci-Fi films was the Theremin, named after its Russian inventor, Professor Léon Theremin, who patented the device in 1928.

Paul Eaton-Jones January 21, 2010 at 12:48 AM

Great sound and visuals. I think it sounds more like a ring modulator audio generator than a theremin.

DrFlimmer January 21, 2010 at 9:42 AM

@ Lawrence B. Crowell,

exactly my thought. The pictures in black and white also look like these old, fantastic movies (I have to see “forbidden planet” again…)!

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