Cosmic music: Iconic James Webb images translated into sound

1 Sep 2022

The heart of the Phantom Galaxy, M74, taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. Image: ESA/Webb/NASA/CSA/J Lee/PHANGS-JWST Team

James Webb images have been adapted into unique soundscapes, while new images of the Phantom Galaxy have been revealed.

If seeing the stunning images from the James Webb Space Telescope isn’t enough, you can now listen to them too.

A team of scientists, musicians and a member of the blind and visually impaired community have worked together to adapt Webb’s data into sound.

Through this work, listeners can enjoy a complex soundscape of the Cosmic Cliffs, the contrasting tones of the Southern Ring Nebula and hear the data points of a gas giant.

“Music taps into our emotional centres,” said Dr Matt Russo, musician and physics professor at the University of Toronto. “Our goal is to make Webb’s images and data understandable through sound – helping listeners create their own mental images.”

The tracks are not actual sounds recorded in space. Russo and his collaborator Andrew Santaguida mapped Webb’s data to sound, composing music to accurately represent details the team wants listeners to focus on.

For example, the Cosmic Cliffs were mapped into a vibrant symphony of sounds based on the different levels of light and detail in the image.

The sonification – or translation of data to sound – scans the image from left to right. Bright light in the image is louder, while lights that are closer to the top of the image create a higher-pitched sound.

The result is a complex batch of sounds that change in overall tone as the sonification moves across the ‘cliffs’ in the image.

In the sonification of the Southern Ring Nebula, the colours in the two images were mapped to different pitches of sound.

The near-infrared light is represented by a higher range of frequencies at the beginning of the track. The notes change, becoming lower overall to reflect that mid-infrared includes longer wavelengths of light.

The translation gives an audible way to represent the differences between the two images, which were taken with different instruments from the James Webb Space Telescope.

Quyen Hart, a senior education and outreach scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, said the compositions provide a different way to experience the detailed information from these images.

“Similar to how written descriptions are unique translations of visual images, sonifications also translate the visual images by encoding information, like colour, brightness, star locations or water absorption signatures, as sounds,” Hart said.

“Our teams are committed to ensuring astronomy is accessible to all.”

NASA also took the pressure waves from a black hole and recently translated them into a range that can be heard by humans, letting us hear what a black hole sounds like.

The heart of the Phantom Galaxy

Meanwhile, new awe-inspiring images from James Webb, the most powerful space observatory ever built, are being released.

The latest pictures are of the Phantom Galaxy, which is around 32m light years away and lies almost face-on to Earth. With well-defined spiral arms, the European Space Agency said it’s a prime target for astronomers studying the origin and structure of galactic spirals.

Thanks to Webb’s powerful instruments, new highly detailed images of the galaxy have been released. Previous images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope have been combined with the new data to create a range of striking images. The observations are part of a larger effort to chart 19 nearby star-forming galaxies.

Three images of a galaxy, with writing at the bottom of each image to show which space observatories were used to take the image. The photos are a combination of Hubble Space Telescope and James Webb images.

A combination of images of the Phantom Galaxy, M74. Image: ESA/Webb/NASA/CSA/J Lee/PHANGS-JWST Team; ESA/Hubble/NASA/R Chandar/J Schmidt

It is hoped the new images will help astronomers pinpoint star-forming regions, accurately measure the masses and ages of star clusters, and gain insights into the nature of the small grains of dust drifting in interstellar space.

Malware hidden in James Webb images

There is always a threat of cybercriminals taking advantage of situations for their own activities. James Webb images are no exception, as a malware campaign is leveraging Webb’s first deep field image to infect systems, according to a new report.

The report by security analytics firm Securonix claims malicious actors are targeting people through phishing emails, with the aim of downloading malware onto the victim’s computer.

The phishing mails include an attachment of the deep field image taken by the James Webb telescope. However, the image contains malicious Base64 code disguised as an included certificate. This code acts as a payload that helps the hackers activate the malware.

“At the time of publication, this particular file is undetected by all antivirus vendors according to VirusTotal,” Securonix said in its report.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic