Wednesday , October 20 2021

Listen to the scary noises picked up at a space weather station in Antarctica


Scientists often detect strange sounds in Antarctica, from the moaning of melting glaciers to seismic waves rippling through the ice shelves. But a space weather station managed by the British Antarctic Survey may contain the most varied selection of acoustic eccentricities collected on the frozen continent to date.

Now, thanks to BAS researcher Nigel Meredith, these sounds are getting into art, music and even video games. Dangerous Elite.

The space climate – from dazzling auroras to dangerous geomagnetic storms – occurs when charged particles from the Sun bombard and interact with Earth's magnetic field. Scientists have numerous tools to study these phenomena, including the BAS Halley Research Station, which uses low frequency radio receivers to detect electromagnetic waves produced by lightning and geomagnetic storms from its perch on the Antarctic Brunt ice shelf.

Data from these waves, coupled with data collected by satellites, power forecasting models that can help Earthlings prepare for major space weather events that can affect satellites and even electrical networks. But radio waves collected in Halley are also within the frequency range of human hearing, and audio software can be used to convert these electromagnetic signals into actual noise.

And it turns out that this noise is a delightfully scary thing:

A couple of years ago, Meredith began collaborating with engineer Diana Scarborough on Sounds of Space, an art project focused on finding creative ways to share Halley's sounds with audiences. He gave a talk on the project at the Cambridge Science Festival in 2017, where an audio engineer Elite Dangerous happened to be in the audience. Their chance encounter led to a more formal meeting and eventually a partnership to incorporate sounds collected by Halley in a gameplay update released on December 11.

The VLF receiver in Halley IV used to capture "sounds" of lightning and geomagnetic storms.
Photo: Courtesy Nigel Meredith (British Antarctic Survey)

Dangerous Elite, for the uninitiated, it is a 1: 1 replica of our Milky Way galaxy, in which players can swap, fight against extraterrestrials or simply exploit 400 million procedurally generated star systems. The game is known to have astronomical accuracy whenever possible – by chance, it basically recreated TRAPPIST-1, a system of seven exoplanets that NASA announced last year – but with this latest update, players can scan planets across the galaxy and hear based on data collected at an Antarctic research station.

"When we started updating our exploration gameplay to the latest game update, we instantly knew that BAS sounds were a perfect match," said Joe Hogan, lead audio designer for Elite DangerousEarther said via e-mail. The team, he said, wanted the players to feel like scientists "tuning in to an old analogue radio, focusing on signs of planets, stars and more" as they explore.

The sounds suited for the game come in a variety of flavors, based on the phenomenon of origin. Lightning storms, for example, release pulses of radio energy known as "spherical" that sound like hail beating against a pavement:

Some ray energy can also escape the Earth's atmosphere before being drawn into the opposite hemisphere along the lines of the magnetic field. This produces descending tones nicknamed "whistlers", which sound like something Company of StarshipCommunication system can pick up from the other end of a wormhole:

Finally, there is what Meredith calls "choruses", emissions generated within the Earth's magnetosphere, when they are struck by charged particles of the Sun. Oddly enough, they sound like bird shrieks and buzzing insects; you can imagine that you are in a rainforest on a distant planet similar to Earth:

"It's mind-boggling that you get such fascinating (and bewildering) audio listening to nature throwing a ton of solar wind into a magnetic ball," said Hogan, adding that the sheer volume of audio that BAS cataloged over the years was " simply staggering "for your team to work on.

If intergalactic exploration is not yours, there are other ways to enjoy these geomagnetic sound landscapes. Recently, Meredith and Scarborough teamed up with composer Kim Cunio and dancer Becky Byers to create a multimedia show using the sounds of Halley, which was presented at the BAS Aurora Innovation Center in Cambridge in November, with more presentations planned for 2019.

You can watch the whole November presentation below, or if you really want to freak out, I can suggest that you view it in the background while you enjoy a quiet John Carpenter performance. The thing?

"Sounds of Space" were provided by scientists of the British Antarctic Survey.

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