This Is How a Star Screams When It Dies

Tycho supernova sonification 6 photos
Chandra telescopeTycho supernovaChandra telescopeTycho supernovaTycho supernova
There’s a saying going around, backed by science, claiming that no one can hear you scream in space. That, of course, applies not only to the living creatures that may have the misfortune of having to scream in the void, but to supernovas as well. Or does it?
SN 1572 is the unceremonious name of a supernova in the constellation Cassiopeia, some 10,000 light-years from Earth. It is also known as the Tycho supernova, after the name of the man who discovered it all the way back in 1572, Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. It is a place of the heavens that for the past twenty or so years has been under our direct observation.

Back in 1999, space shuttle Columbia carried into orbit a space telescope named the Chandra X-ray Observatory, in honor of Indian-American astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. It was almost immediately trained on the supernovas we know about, including Tycho, and has been gathering data about them ever since.

Now, we do know Tycho is a class I supernova, meaning it occurred in a binary system, with one of the two stars being a white dwarf. As one of the biggest explosions we humans have ever seen, this one too was powerful enough to be visible from incredible distances, the light from it shinning a new level of understanding on what happens when a star dies.

The magical images of Tycho Chandra was capable of capturing shows a very colorful landscape, with red, green, and blue mixing with white and black to create an impression of the Universe’s power. Each color, of course, stands for a chemical element: red is iron, green is silicon, and blue sulfur.

Chandra telescope
Photo: NASA
As impressive as they are, these images however only give us one side of the story, and up until the middle of September, we were maybe unable to truly appreciate the struggles of a dying star. It was then when NASA released something it calls the sonification of the Tycho supernova remnant.

For those of you out of the loop, sonification is the process of translating data, whatever its kind, into sound. Just Google the word, and the first result that will show up will not be a definition of it in some dictionary, but a direct link to the Chandra X-ray Observatory. What does that mean? Well, these guys have been at it for a long time, and they’re getting very good at it.

Work on transforming telescope data into sound began some time ago, and this September it produced the sounds of a star-forming region, a supernova remnant, and a black hole at the center of a galaxy. Of interest to us today is, of course, the one centered on the supernova.

To make the dying wails of the Cassiopeia star hearable, scientists used the colors mentioned above, saying “the redder light produces the lowest notes and blue and violet create the higher-pitched notes.” Using an image of the supernova and the said allocation of notes, these guys turned the mess of chemical elements that make up the remnant into one of the most pleasant, random cosmic symphonies we’ve ever heard.

Tycho supernova
Photo: NASA
As you can hear in the video below, the tune of the star’s scream changes outward in a circle, as the colors turn into sound. Near the center, we get the lowest and highest notes, while toward the edges we’re treated with mid-range notes.

Holding all these notes together is the white in the image, which is of course light. It gets turned into sound by interpreting its frequencies as frequencies of sound, and then manipulating them to fall within human hearing range. On top of it all, scientist threw in the field of stars, “played as notes on a harp with the pitch determined by their color.”

Now, this entire exercise is probably not very accurate, as it depends on how we humans attribute the sounds based on what we know, and our physical abilities, but the reality remains that if we were able to hear a star dying, something like this is probably what we would have experienced.

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About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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