NASA and UCLA want you to help identify the sounds of space

By Zoie Matthew

When solar flares intermingle with the Earth’s magnetic field, it creates “space weather” events that have a big impact on the atmosphere. Photo by Shutterstock.

While the atmosphere surrounding our earth might look empty, it’s less of a void than one might imagine. Waves of plasma pumped out from the sun are constantly interacting with the planet’s magnetic field, resulting in eruptions of ultra-low-frequency waves that scientists refer to as “space weather.” 

These disturbances impact everything from satellites to power infrastructure to animal behavior, which is why scientists at NASA have spent more than a decade and a half tracking them as part of their THEMIS study. Now, they want the public to help decipher the data they recorded during that mission — by listening to the sounds of outer space. 

​​HARP – or Heliophysics Audified: Resonances in Plasmas — is a new collaboration between NASA and UCLA that trains citizen scientists to identify and categorize auditory translations of space weather events. 

Emmanuel Masongsong, program manager at UCLA’s SPACE institute, says the goal is to aid scientists in better understanding what’s going on in the upper atmosphere — so they can apply that knowledge to real-world situations. 

“The end goal would be to better model [the waves] using computer simulations, so we can predict when the solar wind might be affecting our satellites,” he says. “Or now that we're sending astronauts to the moon, they might get bombarded by blasts of solar wind, which is actually particle radiation. So understanding this environment is actually really important for our future in space.”

The whistles, crackles, and whooshes volunteers will hear aren’t the real sounds of outer space — because in reality, these magnetic waves aren’t audible to humans. But scientists translated them into sounds because oftentimes, our ears are even better at picking up patterns than computers. 

“There's over a decade worth of data. If we use computers, they wouldn't be able to find some of the things that the human ear can pick up,” says Masongsong. 

To participate in the project, volunteers take a short online training course that explains how to identify the sound of a NASA satellite orbiting the earth, as it traverses the “harp” of magnetic waves that surround the planet. 

“As [the satellite] is flying, it's flying through this massive magnetic harp, and the pitch of the harp gets lower as it gets away from the ear,” says Mike Hartinger, principal investigator of HARP project. “So that whistle sound that's going down and then back up is basically the satellite flying out to the end of the harp, where the magnetic strings are, along and then back to the earth where those strings are short and the pitches lower.”

The goal is to identify sounds that are different from those normal “harp” waves — which can help tell scientists where space weather has shifted. 

“We might find some reverse harps in there, we might find some normal harps in there,” says Hartinger. “And we might find some other patterns that we weren't expecting. So this is exactly what we need people's help to do is to listen to that kind of sound clip, and help us pick out these patterns.” 

You can learn more about the project — or sign up to volunteer yourself — on the HARP website