Music on Mars: If you thought space was silent, take a closer listen

If you thought space was silent, think again. Thanks to NASA's latest Mars rover, anyone can hear the sound of the Martian wind. IDEAS tunes in to the sounds of space and the people working to make music from the beauty of the cosmos in this award-winning documentary by Matthew Lazin-Ryder.

Space is usually silent to us, but with the right equipment and a little imagination, you can hear a lot

NASA’s Perseverance rover, equipped with two microphones, has successfully recorded the first sounds of Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

*This episode originally aired on May 17, 2021.

Until now, Mars had been a silent mystery.

After years of attempts and failures to get a microphone to Mars, NASA's latest rover, Perseverance, succeeded. It landed in February carrying two microphones.

For Jason Achilles Mezilis, a musician and record producer who has also worked for NASA, listening to the haunting Martian wind was an emotional experience.

"I'm in this bar half drunk, and I go over to the corner and I listen to it on my cellphone and … I broke down."

► Listen to NASA's raw audio of the first sounds from Mars (including rover sounds)

The atmosphere of Mars is a little thinner than Earth's, but it still has enough air to transmit sound.

Here is a full playlist from NASA of Mars recordings so far.

Ben Burtt, an Oscar-winning sound designer, editor and director, made the sounds of cinematic space fantasy — from Star Wars to WALL-E to Star Trek. But he's also deeply interested in the sound of actual space reality.

"All sound is a form of wind, really. It's a puff of air molecules moving. And when I heard the sound, I thought: 'Well, you know, I've heard this many times in my headphones on recording trips,'" Burtt said.

"But you tell me that this is a sound made by Perseverance, of course, I suddenly adapt my view to this amazing bit of data from a planet that we've never heard anything like this before. And it takes on a very special meaning."

Below are some sounds of space — and the sonic beauty of the cosmos.

An electromagnetic symphony

Space is full of radio waves, from both spacecraft and natural phenomena. One beautiful example is the "dawn chorus," radio waves sent to earth when solar winds interact with Earth's magnetosphere.

► MP3 | NASA Main Emfisis Chorus

NASA's Cassini probe, which spent 10 years flying around the planet Saturn and its moons, collected radio waves from Saturn in 2003. This is what they sound like:

► MP3 | NASA Saturn Radio Waves

In March of 1979, Voyager 1 reached the planet Jupiter and picked up these radio emissions from lightning in the Jovian atmosphere.

► MP3 | NASA Voyager 1 Jupiter Lightning

Orbital rhythm

SYSTEM Sounds, founded by University of Toronto astrophysicist and musician Matt Russo, translates data from space into music. 

Planets or moons sometimes fall into what's called "orbital resonance," where two or more bodies pull each other into a regular rhythm. One example is the three inner moons of Jupiter: Ganymede, Europa, and Io. 

"The rhythm is very similar to what a drummer might play. There's a very simple regularity," Russo said.

"And there's something about our ears and our auditory system that finds that pleasing, finds repeating rhythms with simple ratios between them pleasing or natural sounding. It's predictable. So it gives you something to kind of latch on to emotionally."

Russo created this tool to illustrate the musical rhythm of the Galilean moons. 

One recently discovered solar system is particularly musical. Trappist-1 was discovered in 2017, and all of its planets are in orbital resonance.

Sonic visualizations

During the pandemic, scientists at NASA, with the help of SYSTEM Sounds, tried to find new ways of connecting people with the beauty of space. The result was "sonic visualizations," translating data captured by telescopes into sound instead of pictures.

Most images of space come from data translated into colours, such as Cassiopeia A, the remains of an exploded star. 

A given colour is usually assigned to the electromagnetic signature of each chemical in the dust cloud. But instead of assigning a colour, a musical note can be assigned, allowing us to hear Cassiopeia A instead of just seeing it.

Cassiopeia A

Cat's Eye Nebula

This is the Cat's Eye Nebula, a dying star, translated into sound using data from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope.

Milky Way galaxy

This is the centre of the Milky Way. This visualization translates data from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, Hubble Space Telescope, and Spitzer Space Telescope. X-Ray's collected by Chandra are played on the xylophone, visible light from Hubble is played on a violin, and infrared light collected by Spitzer is played on piano.

Find more examples here: NASA | A Universe of Sound

Kim Arcand, visualization scientist for NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory, says it's a beautiful mix of science and art.

"You can hear when it's the time for the infrared or the piano to shine. And then the violin kind of kicks in with these plucky little pieces along some of the more energetic materials around these stars," she said

"And then finally, you hear like the crescendo. It's a very excited, high-pitched cacophony of the high energies xylophone happening right around Sagittarius A star, that super massive black hole where all of this energetic stuff is happening."

Guests in this episode:

Ben Burtt is a film director, editor, sound designer on films including Star Wars, WALL-E, and Star Trek (2009).

Kim Arcand is a visualization scientist for NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard and Smithsonian.

Matt Russo is a University of Toronto astrophysicist and founder of SYSTEM Sounds.

Jason Achilles Mezilis is a musician and record producer, independent contractor to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

* Written and produced by Matthew Lazin-Ryder.

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