Hear the mesmerizing sounds of the universe through the Webb Space Telescope

Scientists and musicians have created sonication of images and data from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. credit: NASA

The new tracks combine science and art, improving experiences for blind and visually impaired communities

A team of experts, including scientists and musicians, have devised a new way to explore images and data

NASA
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“data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{” attribute=””>NASA’s Webb Sonification

Using sound to explore some of the first full-color infrared images and data from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

NASA Webb’s First Full-Color Images, Data Are Set to Sound

NASA offers a unique, immersive way to explore some of the first full-color infrared images and data from the James Webb Space Telescope – through sound. Listeners can enter the intricate soundscape of the Cosmic Cliffs in the Carina Nebula, explore the contrasting tones of two images that depict the Southern Ring Nebula, and identify the individual data points in a transmission spectrum of WASP-96 b, a hot gas giant exoplanet.

“Music taps into our emotional centers,” said Matt Russo, a musician and physics professor at the University of Toronto. “Our goal is to make Webb’s images and data understandable through sound – helping listeners create their own mental images.”

A team of scientists, musicians, and a member of the blind and visually impaired community worked to adapt Webb’s data, with support from the Webb mission and NASA’s Universe of Learning.

Webb’s Cosmic Cliffs Sonification

Credit: Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI; Accessibility production: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Kimberly Arcand (CXC/SAO), Matt Russo, Andrew Santaguida (SYSTEM Sounds), Quyen Hart (STScI), Claire Blome (STScI), Christine Malec (consultant).

Experts have drawn a near-infrared image of the cosmic cliffs in the Carina Nebula, captured by NASA’s Webb Telescope, into a symphony of sounds. The musicians assigned unique tones to the semi-transparent regions, gauze, and extremely dense regions of gas and dust in the nebula, resulting in a noisy soundscape.

Sonication scans the image from left to right. A vibrant soundtrack captures the detail in this giant mountain range-like gas cavity. Gas and dust in the upper half of the image are represented by blue colors and drone-like storm sounds. The lower half of the image, represented by red-orange and red shades, has a more vivid and melodic composition.

The brighter light in the image translates into louder sound. The vertical position of the light also determines the frequency of the sound. For example, the bright light near the top of the image looks loud and loud, but the bright light near the middle is loud and low pitched. Dull, dark and dusty areas that appear less in the image are represented by lower frequencies and clearer, undistorted notes.

Webb’s Southern Ring Nebula Sound

Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI; Accessibility production: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Kimberly Arcand (CXC/SAO), Matt Russo, Andrew Santaguida (SYSTEM Sounds), Quyen Hart (STScI), Claire Blome (STScI), Christine Malec (consultant).

NASA’s Webb Telescope revealed two views of the Southern Ring Nebula, each adapted to the sound. Image left (NIRCam) in near-infrared light and view on right (MIRI) in mid-infrared light.

In this sonication, the colors in the images were mapped to the sound tones – light frequencies are translated directly into sound frequencies. Near-infrared light is represented by a higher range of frequencies at the beginning of the path. Halfway through, the observations change, becoming generally lower to reflect that mid-infrared includes longer wavelengths of light.

Listen carefully at 15 seconds and 44 seconds. These observations align with the centers of the near and mid-infrared images, with stars appearing at the center of the “motion”. In the near-infrared image beginning the path, only one star is clearly heard, louder. In the second half of the track, listeners will hear a lower tone just before a higher tone, which indicates the detection of two stars in mid-infrared light. The lower tone represents the red star that created this nebula, and the second is the star that appears brighter and larger.

Webb’s Exoplanet WASP-96 b Sonification

Credit: Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI; Accessibility production: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Kimberly Arcand (CXC/SAO), Matt Russo, Andrew Santaguida (SYSTEM Sounds), Quyen Hart (STScI), Claire Blome (STScI), Christine Malec (consultant).

NASA’s Webb Telescope observed the atmospheric characteristics of the hot gas giant exoplanet WASP-96 b – which has clear fingerprints of water. The individual data points of the resulting transmission spectrum were translated into sound.

Sonication scans the spectrum from left to right. From bottom to top, the y-axis ranges from less to more blocked light. The x-axis ranges from 0.6 μm on the left to 2.8 μm on the right. The scores for each data point correspond to the frequencies of light that each point represents. Longer wavelengths of light have lower frequencies and are heard as lower tones. Size refers to the amount of light detected at each data point.

The sound of falling water drops is used to represent the four water signatures. These sounds simplify the data – water is detected as a signature containing multiple data points. Only votes are aligned to the highest points in the data.

Set data to audio

Although these audio tracks support blind and visually impaired listeners first, they are designed to captivate anyone who follows them. “These audio clips provide a different way to experience the detailed information in the first Webb data. Our teams are committed to ensuring that astronomy is accessible to all,” said Quinn Hart, chief education and outreach scientist at the University of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.

“One of the important discoveries was from sighted people. They reported that the experiment helped them understand how blind and visually impaired people access information differently.”

This project is similar to the “pavement cut effect,” an accessibility requirement that supports a wide range of pedestrians. explained Kimberly Arcand, a visualization scientist at the Chandra X-ray Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who led the NASA Raw Data Sonication project team and is now working on it on behalf of NASA’s Learning Scientist. “We hope that these voices will reach an equally broad audience.”

Preliminary results of an Arcand survey showed that people who are blind or have low vision, and people who are sighted, all reported that they learned something about astrophotos by listening. Participants also shared that the auditory experiences resonated deeply with them. “Respondents’ reactions varied — from feeling awe to feeling a little nervous,” Arcand continued. “One of the important discoveries was from sighted people. They reported that the experiment helped them understand how blind and visually impaired people access information differently.”

It should be noted that these tracks are not actual sounds recorded in space. Instead, Russo and his assistant, musician Andrew Santagueda, mapped Web data to the sound, and precisely composed the music to represent the details the team would like to focus on by their listeners. In a way, this sonication can be seen like modern dance or abstract painting – it turns web images and data into a new way to engage and inspire listeners.

Kristen Malik, a blind and visually impaired community member who also supports this project, said she is experimenting with audio tracks with multiple senses. “When I first heard sonication, it shocked me in a deep and emotional way that I imagine sighted people experience when they look up at the night sky.”

There are other profound benefits to these modifications. “I want to understand every nuance of sound and every instrument choice, because that’s basically how I experience the image or the data,” Malik continued. Overall, the team hopes that sonication of the Web’s data will help more listeners feel a stronger connection to the universe — and inspire everyone to follow the observatory’s upcoming astronomical discoveries.


As the world’s premier space science observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope will solve the mysteries of our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of the universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).

This sonication is the result of a collaboration between the James Webb Space Telescope and NASA’s Universe of Learning Program. The Chandra X-ray Center (CXC) leads the Voice of Data process as a partner for NASA in the world of learning. Web Mission science experts bring their expertise into Web’s observations, data, and goals.

NASA’s Universe of Learning is part of the NASA Activate Science Program, from the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. Science Activation connects NASA science experts, real content, experiences, and community leaders in a way that activates minds and promotes a deeper understanding of our world and beyond. Using its direct affiliation with science and the experts behind science, NASA’s Learning Scientist provides resources and experiences that enable young people, families, and lifelong learners to explore fundamental questions in science, experience how science works, and discover the universe for themselves.

NASA’s Universe of Learning materials are based on work that NASA supports under a collaborative agreement that awards NNX16AC65A to the Space Telescope Science Institute, working in partnership with Caltech/IPAC, Center for Astrophysics | Harvard, Smithsonian, and Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


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