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Where no musician has gone before

An image taken by Voyager 1 in 1990 of our solar system.
A drop in the ocean: This is our solar system family portrait taken by the Voyager 1 space craft on February 14, 1990. It is the farthest picture of the entire solar captured at a record distance of about 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles) from Earth. Click on the image to enlarge. Image courtesy NASA's National Space Science Data Center. Front page image courtesy NASA JPL.

In space no one can hear you scream, but you may be able to hear epic symphonies if you listen hard enough. The prolific Domenico - you guessed it - Vicinanza has used distributed computing and research networks again to create music from… wait for it: interstellar space - well almost.

It's been an attention-grabbing year for Vicinanza who has created musical scores of a Higgs-like boson and subatomic particles in bubble and cloud chambers. At this year's SC12 conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, US, he entertained almost 100 people with a one-of-a-kind scientifically-accurate concert, sourced from data transmitted by NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft, the most distant human-made object from Earth to date.

The space probe left Earth in 1977 and is now at a distance of over 18 billion kilometers (11 billion miles) away, moving at a speed of 520 million kilometers (about 320 million miles) per year. Recent news from NASA says Voyager 1 has reached a new region of space known as "a magnetic highway for charged particles", and is possibly very close to escaping our solar system into interstellar space.

"The Voyager missions are one of the most successful space missions ever. Voyager 1 took some extremely remarkable magnetic field measurements where no manmade object has ever flown. We used data taken more than 16 billion kilometers from Earth and created music to celebrate its wonders, and the incredible contribution it has given to our understanding of the solar system," says Vicinanza.

To celebrate Voyager 1's journey at SC12, Vicinanza worked with NASA and two colleagues from the ASTRA project, which recreates sounds of ancient musical instruments with computer modeling techniques. Mariapaola Sorrentino of ASTRA and the LHCOpenSymphony project provided scientific and technical support, and Giuseppe La Rocca, of INFN, Italy, coordinated grid computing resources for data processing. Together they used a sonification algorithm to convert Voyager 1's data into an epic melody.

Traveling billions of miles and then some

2001: A Space Odyssey-esque? The Voyager 1 Magnetic Field Sonification (Orchestra Version). Click to play. Audio courtesy Domenico Vicinanza.

The raw data streaming from Voyager 1 is managed by NASA's National Space Science Data Center and Space Physics Data Facility. Traveling from the spacecraft all the way to Earth took the data more than 17 hours. On Earth, it was received by a network of radio telescopes called the Deep Space Network. The data was transferred to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the US and routed to the Internet 2 network. The data then crossed over the North Atlantic Ocean, via the America Connects to Europe (ACE) network, to arrive in Europe.

In Europe, the GÉANT Network picked up Voyager 1's data, which was processed and converted by Vicinanza and his troupe into audible tones on the European Grid Infrastructure. Finally, the completed music was sent back over the North Atlantic where it was picked up by the high-bandwidth SCinet network at the SC12 conference.

Why does interstellar space sound so cool?

The second version of the Voyager 1 Magnetic Field Sonification (Orchestra version with percussion). Audio courtesy Domenico Vicinanza.

When listening to the music track called 'Voyager 1 Magnetic Field Sonification' that was played at the SC12 demonstration, one can't help but notice how catchy it sounds.

"The melody sounds good because we mapped magnetic field data measurements to a diatonic scale (white keys of the keyboard)," says Vicinanza. "It has the advantage of returning melodies which are easy to harmonize and play by real instruments. Finally, well, the music that came out was particularly attractive because space is probably so interesting that music just inherited its beauty."

Vicinanza also worked with Jarrett Cohen and Jill Dunbar, science writers at NASA, on the SC12 concert. Jill and Jarrett both initially heard of his work on the web and they both loved the idea that Vicinanza combined scientific data, mathematical methods, and music. They thought it would grab the public interest and could inspire students to pursue STEM areas.

"He visited the NASA booth at SC12 and showed us a demonstration of his work. We were intrigued… so we invited him to present in our booth, rearranging the schedule of talks to make room for his presentation. The reaction from visitors to the NASA booth was very positive," says Jill. "We plan to use segments in a public exhibit on supercomputing at the Ames Research Center, California, US."

Next year, Vicinanza is planning a duet of the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 datasets at the EGI Community Forum, Manchester, UK, in April 2013.

Coincidently, NASA is opening up more of its scientific data.

"What may surprise people is that satellite data can be downloaded to use in various ways. NASA's Kepler mission is now making hundreds of terabytes of raw data available to the public, with no wait time. Amateur astronomers around the world are using the Kepler data and some have discovered new planetary systems using this data," says Jill.

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