NASA Scans Through Vast Amounts of Data By Converting It to Sound

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NASA has a lot of satellites, and these satellites have collected months, if not years, of data that can take pretty much forever to sift through. But one clever idea is to turn the measurements of space into sound and speed it up; a month of data might be scanned audibly in all of 10 minutes.

This "bird's ear view" of space is described in a new paper by Robert Alexander, a graduate student in design science working with sun scientists at NASA. Alexander and his colleague took data from the Wind satellite, which measures the sun's electromagnetic fluctuations, and turned it into audible sound through a computer algorithm.

Listening to space data turns out to be a pretty good alternative to staring at visual representations of the data. Scientists trained to listen for, say, a stream of plasma, can easily hear it on the audio track. Take a listen for yourself in the clip at top.


But how does converting electromagnetic pulses to sound work? As NASA explains, it's actually quite similar to what happens in an ordinary recording studio on Earth.

When a person sings into a microphone, it detects changes in pressure and converts the pressure signals to changes in magnetic intensity in the form of an electrical signal. The electrical signals are stored on the reel tape. Magnetometers on the Wind satellite measure changes in magnetic field directly creating a similar kind of electrical signal.


This isn't the first time researchers have turned to sonification, of course. Most famously, recordings from the Voyager 2 were turned into sound and even later released as an album of music. But listening to data still requires a bit more training than, say, eyeing a graph. It's training that could ultimately pay off. [NASA]