It’s music that’s literally out of this world, and it comes from one of the world’s most advanced telescopes.
The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) sits on a desert plateau in Northern Chile, as high and dry as it can get, to pick up invisible radio waves traveling 1,500 years at the speed of light. Light that most telescopes can’t see.
Two astronomers took that light and turned it into sound — for DJs.
The project — ALMA Sounds — eventually produced an EP under the same name in collaboration with Swiss DJ and producer Luciano's label, Cadenza Music.
“We like electronic music,” Antonio Hales, one of the two astronomers who worked on the project, said. “But ultimately, we were motivated by the fact that we were doing something that goes beyond what we do … and maybe be able to reach a different audience beyond the scientifically literate groups.”
Hales’ team is in charge of tuning up the radio telescope so that it’s well-calibrated and gives a stellar performance every day. They also execute operations and process data for hundreds of requests coming in each year from scientists all over the world, making it something like the United Nations of astronomy.
“It’s not your ordinary backyard look-through-the-eyepiece telescope,” Charles Blue, ALMA expert and public information officer for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), said. The United States is a major partner of the Chilean telescope through the NRAO and the National Science Foundation.
ALMA is actually 66 separate antennas stretched out more than six miles apart, Blue explained. They all function as one single telescope to pick up a light that can’t be seen with the naked eye, called millimeter wavelength light.
“So we take the light from the universe, and [have] to manipulate it so it comes down to sort of a frequency [and sound wavelength] our ears can hear,” Blue said. “But that’s actually pretty neat stuff, and if you’re a musician, you can take that sound and work with it and play with it, and figure out where the music is in it.”
Popular electronic festival Sónar+D did just that, showcasing ALMA Sounds at its first launch in Chile. One of Sónar’s producers had contacted the ALMA team about incorporating the telescope into the festival, and Hales and his colleague Ricardo Finger spent hours of their free time converting data from the Orion Nebula into hundreds of high-pitched chirps, clacking echoes and low drumming sounds.
They also uploaded their giant pack of space samples online, making them available for free. It caused a buzz in the DJ community and even caught the attention of pianist and composer Diego Errázuriz
“I felt inspired, because I was working with sounds of the universe in a sense,” Errázuriz said, “and I think that that’s a big part of the value of this project, [because] it puts you in a mindset that is different because ... you’re working with a very special set of sounds.”
But Errázuriz never uploaded his track onto the ALMA Sounds page until he just happened to meet Hales at a party one day, and the stars aligned. They started talking about astronomy, and Errázuriz realized he was standing in front of one of the astronomers who created the space sounds for his track.
“This track was something that nobody expected because...we knew we were going to get beat-dominated tracks, something more like electronic-like,” Hales said. “But this sort of more ambient, almost more classical track that Diego put together, was something we didn’t expect. It was a huge finding, and we want more of that.”
Hales hopes that expanding this library of “universal music” will encourage more collaborations between artists and scientists, and help listeners to discover a new appreciation for the beauty and fragility of our home planet.
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