The sounds of a Martian sunrise inspire short musical composition

The sonification process involved assigning specific pitches and melodies to such characteristics in the data as brightness, color, and the elevation of the terrain.

Enlarge / The sonification process involved assigning specific pitches and melodies to such characteristics in the data as brightness, color, and the elevation of the terrain.
YouTube/NASA

NASA’s Mars rover, Opportunity, fell silent earlier this year, but even if it never regains full function, it had one last gift to give. Scientists have transformed Opportunity’s image of its 5000th sunrise on Mars into music using a process called data sonification.

“Image sonification is a really flexible technique to explore science and it can be used in several domains, from studying certain characteristics of planet surfaces and atmospheres, to analyzing weather changes or detecting volcanic eruptions,” says Domenico Vicinanza, director of the Sound and Game Engineering research group at Anglia Ruskin University. “In health science, it can provide scientists with new methods to analyze the occurrence of certain shapes and colors, which is particularly useful in image diagnostics.”

He and his co-creator, the University of Exeter’s Genevieve Williams, will debut their two-minute composition (“Mars Soundscapes”) at NASA’s booth at the Supercomputing SC18 conference this week in Dallas, Texas.

To create their composition, Vicinanza and Williams scanned the image pixel by pixel, from left to right. Then they assigned specific pitches and melodies to such characteristics in the data as brightness, color, and the elevation of the terrain. You can listen to the resulting Martian “soundtrack” in the video below. Those lucky enough to be at the conference will also be able to experience it via vibrational transducers, feeling the vibrations with their hands as well as listening to the sounds.

This isn’t Vicinanza’s first foray into sonification. He previously composed music based on particle physics data used to discover the Higgs boson, as well as from magnetometer readings from the Voyager mission. And in 2014, he composed a 12-minute piece (for harp, guitar, two violins, a keyboard, a clarinet, and a flute) based on data from the four major experiments at the Large Hadron Collider to mark CERN’s 60th anniversary,

“Mars Soundscapes”

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