Scientists are Using Artificial Intelligence to See Inside Stars Using Sound Waves

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory has captured images of a growing dark region on the surface of the Sun. Called a coronal hole, it produces high-speed solar winds that can disrupt satellite communications. Image: Solar Dynamics Observatory / NASA
NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory has captured images of a growing dark region on the surface of the Sun. Called a coronal hole, it produces high-speed solar winds that can disrupt satellite communications. Image: Solar Dynamics Observatory / NASA

How in the world could you possibly look inside a star? You could break out the scalpels and other tools of the surgical trade, but good luck getting within a few million kilometers of the surface before your skin melts off. The stars of our universe hide their secrets very well, but astronomers can outmatch their cleverness and have found ways to peer into their hearts using, of all things, sound waves. Continue reading “Scientists are Using Artificial Intelligence to See Inside Stars Using Sound Waves”

What Do Other Planets Sound Like?

What Do Other Planets Sound Like?

We know that in space, no one can hear you scream. But what would things sound like on another planet?

When humans finally set foot on Mars, they’re going to be curious about everything around them.

What’s under that rock? What does it feel like to jump in the lower Martian gravity. What does Martian regolith taste like? What’s the bitcoin to red rock exchange rate?

As long as they perform their activities in the safety of a pressurized habitation module or exosuit, everything should be fine. But what does Mars sound like?

I urge all future Martian travelers, no matter how badly you want to know the answer to this question: don’t take your helmet off. With only 1% the atmospheric pressure of Earth, you’d empty your lungs with a final scream in a brief and foolish moment, then suffocate horribly with a mouthful of dust on the surface of the Red Planet.

But… actually, even the screaming would sound a little different. How different? Let me show you. First you just need to take your helmet off for a just a little sec, just an itsy bitsy second. Here, I’ll hold it for you. Oh, come on, just take your helmet off. All the cool kids are doing it.

What about Venus? Or Titan? What would everything sound like on an alien world?

We evolved to exist on Earth, and so it’s perfectly safe for us to listen to sounds in the air. No space suit needed. Unless you didn’t evolve on Earth, in which case I offer to serve as emissary to our all new alien overlords.

You know sounds travel when waves of energy propagate through a medium, like air or water. The molecules bump into each other and pass along the energy until they strike something that won’t move, like your ear drum. Then your brain turns bouncing into sounds.

The speed of the waves depends on what the medium is made of and how dense it is. For example, sound travels at about 340 meters/second in dry air, at sea level at room temperature. Sound moves much more quickly through liquid. In water it’s nearly 1,500 m/s. It’s even faster through a solid – iron is up past 5,100 m/s. Our brain perceives a different sound depending on the intensity of the waves and how quickly they bounce off our ears.

Artist's impression of the surface of Venus. Credit: ESA/AOES
Artist’s impression of the surface of Venus. Credit: ESA/AOES

Other worlds have media that sound waves can travel through, and with your eardrum exposed to the atmosphere you should theoretically hear sounds on other worlds. Catastrophic biological failures from using your eardrums outside of documented pressure tolerances notwithstanding.

Professor Tim Leighton and a team of researchers from the University of Southampton have simulated what we would hear standing on the surface of other worlds, like Mars, Venus or even Saturn’s Moon Titan.

On Venus, the pitch of your voice would become deeper, because vocal cords would vibrate much more slowly in the thicker Venusian atmosphere. But sounds would travel more quickly through the soupy atmosphere. According to Dr. Leighton, humans would sound like bass Smurfs. Mars would sound a little bit higher, and Titan would sound totally alien.

Dr. Leighton actually simulated the same sound on different worlds. Here’s the sound of thunder on Earth.
Here’s what it would sound like on Venus.
And here’s what it would sound like on Mars.
Here’s what a probe splashing into water on Earth would sound like.
And here’s what it would sound like splashing into a hydrocarbon lake on Titan.

You might be amazed to learn that we still haven’t actually recorded sounds on another world, right up until someone points out that putting a microphone on another planet hasn’t been that big a priority for any space mission.

A fish-eye view of Titan's surface from the European Space Agency's Huygens lander in January 2005. Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
A fish-eye view of Titan’s surface from the European Space Agency’s Huygens lander in January 2005. Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Especially when we could analyze soil samples, but hey fart sounds played and then recorded in the Venusian atmosphere could prove incredibly valuable to the future of internet soundboards.

The Planetary Society has been working to get a microphone included on a mission. They actually included a microphone on the Mars Polar Lander mission that failed in 1999. Another French mission was going to have a microphone, but it was cancelled. There are no microphones on either Spirit or Opportunity, and the Curiosity Rover doesn’t have one either despite its totally bumping stereo.

Here’s is the only thing we’ve got. When NASA’s Phoenix Lander reached the Red Planet in 2008, it had a microphone on board to capture sounds. It recorded audio as it entered the atmosphere, but operators turned the instrument off before it reached the surface because they were worried it would interfere with the landing.

Mars Phoenix Lander. Image credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

Here’s the recording.

Meh. I’m going to need you to do better NASA. I want an actual microphone recording winds on the surface of Mars. I hope it’s something Dethklok puts on their next album, they could afford that kind of expense.

It turns out, that if you travel to an alien world, not only would the sights be different, but the sounds would be alien too. Of course, you’d never know because you’re be too chicken to take your helmet off and take in the sounds through the superheated carbon dioxide or methane atmosphere.

What sounds would you like to hear on an alien world? Tell us in the comments below.

What Does a Supernova Sounds Like?

What Does a Supernova Sounds Like?

We’ve all been ruined by science fiction, with their sound effects in space. But if you could watch a supernova detonate from a safe distance away, what would you hear?

Grab your pedantry tinfoil helmet and say the following in your best “Comic Book Guy” voice: “Don’t be ridiculous. Space does not have sound effects. You would not hear the Death Star exploding. That is wrong.” There are no sounds in space. You know that. Why did you even click on this?

Wait! I still have thing I want to teach you. Keep that tinfoil on and stick around. First, a quick review. Why are there sounds? What are these things we detect with our ear shell-flaps which adorn the sides of our hat-resting orb?

Sounds are pressure waves moving through a medium, like air, water or beer. Talking, explosions, and music push air molecules into other molecules. Through all that “stuff” pushing other “stuff” it eventually pushes the “stuff” that we call our eardrum, and that lets us hear a thing. So, much like how there’s not enough “stuff” in space to take a temperature reading. There’s not enough “stuff” in space to be considered a medium for sound to move through.

Don’t get me wrong there’s “stuff” there. There’s particles. Even in intergalactic depths there are a few hundred particles every cubic meter, and there’s much more in a galaxy. They’re so far apart though, the particles don’t immediately collide with each other allowing a sound wave to pass through a grouping of them.

So, even if you did watch the Death Star explode, you couldn’t hear it. This includes zapping lasers, and exploding rockets. Unless two astronauts touched helmets together, then they could talk. The sound pressure moves through the air molecules in one helmet, through the glass transferring from one helmet to the other, and then pushes against the air inside the helmet of the listening astronaut. Then they could talk, or possibly hear one another scream, or just make muffled noises under the face-hugger that had been hiding in their boot.

There’s no sound in space, so you can’t hear what a supernova sounds like. But if you’re willing to consider swapping out your listening meats for other more impressive cybernetic components, there are possibilities. Perhaps I could offer you something in a plasma detection instrument, and you could hear the Sun.

Artist's concept of NASA's Voyager spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s concept of NASA’s Voyager spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Voyager 1 detects waves of particles streaming from the Sun’s solar wind. It was able to hear when it left the heliosphere, the region where the Sun’s solar wind buffets against the interstellar medium.

Or you could try something in the Marconi Auralnator 2000 which is the latest in radio detector implants I just made up. If there was such a thing, you could hear the plasma waves in Earth’s radiation belts. Which would be pretty amazing, but perhaps somewhat impractical for other lifestyle purposes such as watching Ellen.

So, if you wanted to hear a supernova you’d need a different kind of ear. In fact, something that’s not really an ear at all. There are some exceptions out there. With dense clouds of gas and dust at the heart of a galaxy cluster, you could have a proper medium. NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory has detected sound waves moving through these dust clouds. But you would need ears millions of billions of times more sensitive to hear them.

NASA and other space agencies work tirelessly to convert radio, plasma and other activity into a sound pressure format that we can actually hear. There are beautiful things happening space. I’ve included a few links below which will take you to a few of these, and they are really quite incredible.


Lightning on Saturn, Helium in the atmosphere, etc.

What Is Sound?

What is Sound

[/caption]Light and sound are both waves. However, the former can travel through a vacuum while the latter cannot. So what is sound and how does it propagate as a wave?

Sound is actually a pressure wave. When an object vibrates, it creates a mechanical disturbance in the medium in which it is directly adjacent to. Usually, the medium is air. The medium then carries the disturbance in the form of oscillating and propagating pressure waves.

The frequency of the waves are dependent on the frequency of the vibrating source. If the frequency of the vibrating source is high, then the sound wave will also have a high frequency. The sounds that we hear, from the voice of the person right next to you, to the music coming from your iPod earphones, to the crashing noise of shattered glass, all come from a vibrating source.

As the sound waves propagate through a medium, the pressure at a localized region in the medium alternates between compressions and rarefactions (or decompressions). Thus, if at one instant, a region in the medium experiences compression, the regions adjacent to it along the line of propagation are expected to be experiencing rarefactions.

Then as time progresses, the region in question undergoes a rarefaction while those adjacent to it undergo compressions. Therefore, if no medium exists, then the compressions and rarefactions cannot occur.

Now, how does one hear sounds? Remember how a source has to vibrate to produce a sound wave, and how a vibrating medium (e.g. air) has to exist to allow the sound wave to propagate? In the same manner, the receiver of the sound has to have something that can vibrate in order to ‘interpret’ the sound carried by the vibrating medium.

In the case of our ears, our eardrums serve as the receivers. When the vibrating air reaches our eardrums, it causes our eardrums to vibrate as well. The eardrums then transmit these vibrations to tiny bones in the middle ear, and so on until they reach the inner ear where the oscillating pressures are converted into electrical signals and sent to the brain.

Our ears are sensitive to vibrations between 20 to 20,000 Hz. Normally, frequencies that are higher or lower than the range provided cannot be processed by our auditory system. Young kids however, are able to hear slightly higher frequencies. That means, the range over which we are sensitive to diminishes as we grow older.

We have some articles in Universe Today that are related to sound. Here are two of them:

  • Hypersonic
  • Supersonic

Speed of sound references, brought to you by NASA. Here are the links:

Tired eyes? Let your ears help you learn for a change. Here are some episodes from Astronomy Cast that just might suit your taste:

Indiana University