Turning Solar Storms Into Music

Scientist in New Hampshire uses data from space to create unique music.
Artist's rendering of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft

Artist's rendering of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft

Media credits

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center | Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

Chris Gorski, Editor

Among the exhibits at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting, happening now in San Francisco, is a booth dedicated to music. That's where I met Marty Quinn, a sonification researcher at the University of New Hampshire, and a musician.

Along with a group called CRaTER, which stands for Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation, he developed computer algorithms that make music from cosmic-ray data obtained from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Quinn told me that at any one time, he can tune into an Internet radio station that streams the music, and very quickly recognize if there is a solar storm.

I recorded a short interview with him in the exhibit booth, while the streaming music played in the background.

Here is a transcript of the interview:

"Each measure of music is one second long and it plays all six detectors from the CRaTER instrument on board the lunar instrument onboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. It plays those data value counts right now on a piano, but if we had a solar storm, or we started to have a solar storm, it would start to change instruments to kora, from Africa, to marimba, strings, steel drum, nylon string guitar, pizzicato strings, and finally banjo for a super storm. And then, it also changes scales based on the data counts that it's receiving in any 16 seconds. Right now it's major scale, not much is going on on the moon right now, but it will change to ascending harmonic minor, minor, harmonic minor, and Spanish gypsy minor as the counts increase. So it really changes the whole feeling of the music. It becomes what I call a data soundtrack.

My name is Marty Quinn and I work for the University of New Hampshire with the CRaTER team."

Quinn has done lots of other work in this area, which is online at www.drsrl.com. He also mentioned that the technology used in the music heard above will be used in an opera scheduled to open in Fort Worth, Texas, in about 18 months.

Author Bio & Story Archive

Chris Gorski is the Senior Editor of Inside Science. Follow him on twitter at @c_gorski.