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Northern Lights

Hear the Planets’ Beautiful Lament


An auditory rarity, this music arises from the interaction between Saturn and one of its moons.

In September 2017, the Cassini spacecraft caught fire upon reaching Saturn’s atmosphere. Two weeks earlier, the NASA spacecraft had gathered a wealth of information about the Solar System’s sixth planet. This included towering images of the giant planet, its rings, and its moons. What’s more, Cassini recorded a good amount of audio information, including the mysterious sounds that arise from the interaction between the enormous body and one of its moons, Enceladus.

Enceladus is encrusted with a layer of ice and releases water vapor which interacts with Saturn’s magnetic field. An instrument inside of Cassini recorded the plasma waves which result from that interaction –from the oscillations of the particles and fields between the two bodies. Back on Earth, physicists had a job translating those waves into sound that can be perceived by the human ear. They compressed one recording of 16 minutes into 28.5 seconds and then reduced the wave frequencies.

“Enceladus is this little generator going around Saturn, and we know it is a continuous source of energy. Now we find that Saturn responds by launching signals in the form of plasma waves, through the circuit of magnetic field lines connecting it to Enceladus hundreds of thousands of miles away,” explained Ali Sulaiman, a researcher at the University of Iowa.

In the Europe of the Renaissance there was talk of Musica Universalis or the “Music of the Spheres.” It was a philosophical and religious concept which spoke of the proportions of the movements of the celestial bodies. It was not a music to be listened to, but a reflection of the harmony within the universe, sound born of the perfection of the cosmos, and the work of the creator.

The magical sounds generated by Saturn and Enceladus –which may sound like mere currents of air– generate a strange sensation, capable of both fascinating and even disturbing. It’s a reminder of what’s happening all around us and which we sometimes forget; these relationships between the stars in our Solar System, our outer-space neighborhood.

Image: Public Domain

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