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NASA's Voyager Data Is Now a Musical

Listen to a classical duet made of measurements from the far-out spacecrafts.
January 22, 2014, 5:45pm

Domenico Vicinanza composing the duet live. Image via Géant

This is what 36 years’ worth of data from NASA’s Voyager spacecrafts sounds like and boy, is it beautiful:

You might think that big data would sound like so many binary beeps, but a project manager at Géant in the UK has turned 320,000 measurements from NASA Voyager equipment into a classically-inspired track. The company describes it as “an up-tempo string and piano orchestral piece.”

Domenico Vicinanza, who is a trained musician as well as a physicist, took measurements from the cosmic ray detectors on Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 at hour intervals, and converted it into two melodies. The result is a duet: the data sets from the two spacecraft play off each other throughout to create a rather charming harmony. Vicinanza described the effect he was aiming for in a statement:

I wanted to compose a musical piece celebrating the Voyager 1 and 2 *together*, so used the same measurements (proton counts from the cosmic ray detector over the last 37 years) from both spacecrafts, at the exactly same point of time, but at several billions of kms of distance one from the other.

I used different groups of instruments and different sound textures to represent the two spacecrafts, synchronising the measurements taken at the same time.

In the final piece, each second of sound is made up of anywhere between a few thousand to over 40,000 data points. Voyager 1 is represented by piano and harp, while Voyager 2 forms the string section. Vicinanza told Wired that he mapped the piece to a diatonic scale—a musical scale—for artistic purposes, but that the resulting “sonification” remains just as scientifically relevant.

Data sonification, the technique of representing data points with sound, makes it easier to spot trends, peaks, patterns, and anomalies in a huge data set without having to pore over the numbers. We’ve seen it applied to space before with NASA’s Robert Alexander, who composed music with the Sun. Vicinanza originally created his piece live at NASA’s booth at the Super Computing 2013 exhibition in Colorado, where he used Géant’s network to transfer the spacecraft data at high speed.

Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were deactivated over ten years ago, but they still send data back to Earth. They were originally launched in 1977 and between them have flown by Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus. They’re now both over 15 billion kilometres away from Earth in different directions; in 2012, Voyager 1 became the first manmade object ever to enter interstellar space. It’s safe to say they’re pretty far out.

The music somehow brings the two crafts closer together, though, and it’s hard to imagine that they’re actually billions of kilometres from each other, and from us, when you hear them harmonising in unison. For someone whose ears haven’t quite yet recovered from hearing Kim Dotcom’s EDM album earlier this week, it’s quite simply sublime.