There are sounds in space and now they’re in the movies
Credit: SSFX

There are sounds in space and now they’re in the movies

10/01/2018Written by Martin Archer

The science behind space sounds and the short films that bring them to life.

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mascot Telescope Right
Space plasma (the Aurora) photographed from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Kicking off the new year with a literal bang is this guest blog all about sounds in space, brought to you by Dr Martin Archer, a space plasma physicist at Queen Mary University of London.

We’re delighted to welcome Martin as a speaker for our January Space Lates this Saturday evening, 13 January 2018. Do join us to find out more and watch some of the award-winning short films that have been inspired by the bangs, whistles, and whisperings of space.

Tickets available online or at the door.

Sounds in space and film by Dr Martin Archer:

You may have been told definitively that space is silent or “In space no one can hear you scream” as made famous by the movie Alien. The common explanation for this is that space is a vacuum and so there’s no medium for sound to travel through.

Despite this, films have always depicted space as a noisy environment filled with booming sound effects. But they may not have been as wrong as you think and, thanks to an art-science collaboration, there is now a collection of short films featuring the real sounds of space.

The idea that space is completely devoid of particles is wrong. Here on the ground the air is made up of some 300,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules in every cubic centimetre. In contrast, in interplanetary space on average you’ll find just five protons (which make up the atomic nucleus with neutrons) in the same volume – almost completely empty in comparison … but not quite.

Notice how I say protons, because space (like 99.9% of the entire universe) isn’t filled with gas but with plasma: a different state of matter made of charged particles. These charged particles mean that plasma can have some different properties, for instance they can generate and be affected by electric and magnetic fields.

These kinds of interactions allow for the plasma-equivalent of sound waves: magnetosonic waves. Like the sound waves we’re used to, these are oscillations of pressure travelling through a medium but now with some added magnetism too.

These sounds of space aren’t audible to the human ear though: the pressure variations are incredibly weak and can only exist at much lower frequencies than our ears can detect. Despite this, they can actually affect us. The waves transfer energy around within the Earth’s protective magnetic bubble, the magnetosphere, which can lead to increased radiation levels in the form of “killer electrons” that may damage satellites. For this reason we use scientific instruments sensitive enough to be able to measure these sounds, giving us data that we can use to improve our predictive capabilities to better protect our systems.

Normally we just study the data by looking at these oscillations, but just like an orchestra consists of many different instruments which can be played in a variety of styles, there are many different types of sounds present in the space around the Earth which often occur simultaneously. Separating these out using a computer can be very difficult, but the human auditory system excels at such tasks. That’s why I made some of these measurements audible by amplifying these space sounds and squashing them in time so a whole year becomes just six minutes.

As I’d created this audible version of the data I use in research, I thought that there must be something else that could be done with it. And so I decided to run a film competition (Space Sounds Effects or SSFX), challenging filmmakers to be inspired by these sounds and incorporate them into shorts in some way. The brief was kept really open with no limit on genre or topic, only that the films had to use some of the space sounds (which they were free to modify in any way) somewhere in them. I had no idea how this community would take to such a challenge or what on Earth (or more technically, off it) the results would be.

Credit: SSFX

The responses were incredibly varied and the quality was so high, which made the judging process very difficult indeed. We had films which explored future everyday life in space, exploring microscopic worlds, contemporary dance, and even the experience of a fish.

My team of judges and I managed to whittle the entries down to seven short films which we screened at a special film festival in London and we’re now taking these films across the country, including at the next Space Lates at the National Space Centre.

It’s weird to think that all those diverse and disparate ideas clearly link back to audible data recorded in space itself.

To find out more, join us at the National Space Centre for Space Lates on 13 January 2018 from 18:00-21:00. We'll be hosting guest speakers, activities, and stargazing all about space!

About the author: Dr Martin Archer is a Space Plasma Physicist at Queen Mary University of London.