radio astronomy: a project by r a d i o q u a l i a


Radio Astronomy is an art and science project which broadcasts sounds intercepted from space live on the internet and on the airwaves.

The project is a collaboration between r a d i o q u a l i a, and radio telescopes located throughout the world. Together we are creating 'radio astronomy' in the literal sense - a radio station devoted to broadcasting audio from our cosmos.

Radio Astronomy has three parts:
- a sound installation
- a live on-air radio transmission
- a live online radio broadcast

Listeners will hear the acoustic output of radio telescopes live. The content of the live transmission will depend on the objects being observed by partner telescopes. On any given occasion listeners may hear the planet Jupiter and its interaction with its moons, radiation from the Sun, activity from far-off pulsars or other astronomical phenomena.

Broadcasting Sounds from Space

Radio Astronomy correlates the processes associated with broadcast radio - the transmission of audible information, and the processes of radio astronomy - the observation and analysis of radiated signals from planets, stars and other astrophysical objects. The work synthesizes these two areas. The signals from planets and stars are converted into audio and then broadcast on-line and on-air. The project is a literal interpretation of the term, ³radio astronomy². It is a radio station broadcasting audio from space.

r a d i o q u a l i a consider radio telescopes to be radio receivers, which are listening to radio signals being transmitted from planets and stars. Thinking of radio in this way radically enlarges the concept. Radio Astronomy is located within this expanded field of radio.

Many of the sounds emitted by these objects are fascinating from both an aesthetic and conceptual perspective, prompting comparisons with avant-garde music and electronic sound art. Yet very few people have heard these sounds, considering space to be silent, rather than the rich acoustic environment it turns out to be.

Listening To Space

The weight of imagery associated with space is overwhelming. We can all look at space, in pictures on television, in books, and on the internet, but in popular culture, we have no sense of what sounds are evident in space. In film, on television, and indeed in documentary, space is usually depicted as an aural void. And indeed, most people associate space with silence.

This is in fact a misnomer. A great percentage of our scientific understanding of space has been derived by listening to space through radio telescopes. The data we glean from listening to space is every bit as significant and important to our comprehension of the Universe as more traditionally understood optical observation.

Even the scientific perception of radio astronomy is largely visual. Despite the fact that objects are observed and recorded using radio, their emissions are represented using graphs, diagrams, graphic visualisations and other visual media. Many objects, do however, emit radiation in the audible band, making it possible to hear the Universe. Space, as it turns out, is a very noisy place, with each planet, star, nebula and cluster, containing its own sonic signature. And yet, very few people have ever heard space. Hardly any of us could describe the sound of a single planet or star.

Radio Astronomy is an attempt to address this, by publicly broadcasting sounds intercepted from radio telescopes. Radio Astronomy enables listeners to tune into to different celestial frequencies, hearing planets, stars, nebulae, and the constant hiss of cosmic noise. It reveals the sonic character of objects in our galaxy, and in the process perhaps make these phenomena more tangible and comprehensible. The project is indeed radio astronomy in the strict sense - a radio station devoted to broadcasting sounds from space.

What Does Space Sound Like?

By tuning in to different parts of the radio spectrum, many astronomical objects can be heard clearly and distinctly.

The complex interplay between the planet Jupiter and its volcanic moon, Io, produces "radio noise storms", which can be heard on the radio band from about 15 MHz up to 38 MHz. A storm can last from a few minutes to several hours. Two distinctive types of bursts can be received by radio astronomers during a storm. L-Bursts (long bursts of radiation) vary slowly in intensity with time, lasting from a few seconds to several tens of seconds and have bandwidths of a few MHz. L-Bursts sound like ocean waves breaking up on a beach. S-Bursts (short bursts of radiation) have durations of a few thousandths to a few hundredths of a second and can occur at rates of tens of bursts per second. Groups of S-Bursts sound like popcorn popping, or like a handful of pebbles thrown onto a tin roof.

The Sun is also a very commonly heard object via radio astronomy. When there is a solar flare on the Sun's surface, it is often accompanied by a burst of radio energy projected into space. This energy can be monitored with standard ShortWave and VHF radio receivers. Solar bursts typically last from half a minute to a couple of minutes and often sound like a rapid hissing noise followed by a gradual decrease back to the original audio level.

Audio can also be used to describe more distant and abstract phenomena in space. Pulsars are a good example. A pulsar is a small spinning neutron star which contains an enormous amount of energy which causes it to turn on its axis, or rotate, very rapidly. Pulsars rotate between less than 1 time per second up to 642 times per second. It is very difficult for us to understand the significance of this through visual media. But audio or data sonification can really bring this to life. For example the B0329+54 Pulsar rotates around 1.40 times per second. Each rotation can be heard as a click, or a beat, and through audio it sounds like a slow steady metronome. The Vela Pulsar, lies near the centre of the Vela supernova remnant, which is the debris of the explosion of a massive star about 10,000 years ago, rotates at about 11 times per second, and thus has a much faster rhythm

The terrific amount of energy it takes to spin a star on its axis at this pace, and the speed at which these rotations take place, is more easily signified in audio, than in visual media.

Radio Astronomy is an attempt to depict some of these complex audio events.

Broadcasting The Music Of The Spheres

The history of 20th century avant-garde music and sound art has been marked by the radical expansion of the notion of musique concréte. Emanating originally from Pierre Schaeffer's experiments with natural sounds recorded and played back in a musical context, musique concréte has become a framework of thinking about musical forms created from non-musical, or 'found', sounds. Parallel challenges to the definition of music have been issued by many 20th century composers - Alvin Lucier, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, to name but a few. John Cage's iconic 4.33 challenged audiences to listen to their ambient surrounds, taking into account the aesthetic and conceptual qualities of the performance location. Stockhausen conceives of technological tools such as microphones, transmitters and recording devices as being musical instruments. These pioneering theoretical positions have created a context whereby musicians are able to count among their compositional tools and performative instruments most naturally occurring or man-made sounds. What at first may appear to be non-musical sound, can be heard and contextualised as musical by the subtle intervention of a musician or sound artist.

Radio Astronomy can be interpreted as existing within this avant-garde tradition. A musique concréte reading of the project would depict the telescopes as grand concréte instruments, performing an ongoing and automated composition, nuanced by the complex interplay of the astronomers' target observations, the atmospheric conditions of a particular period, and the operational condition of the telescopes.

Avant-garde contemporary electronic music can also give us conceptual apparatus to examine the aesthetic output of the radio telescopes utilised in Radio Astronomy. Music created by experimental electronic musicians using laptop computers and software such as Reactor, MaxMSP and PureData(PD) is often characterised by its use of crackles, pops, hisses, ticks and other digital detritus caused by the digital processing of audio. This music, often referred to as 'glitch music' and exemplified by musicians such as Oval, Kim Cascone, Ryoji Ikeda, Matmos, Fennesz and many others, has become an important part of electronic culture. The aestheticisation of the 'mistake' or 'glitch' which so exemplifies this type of music has helped usher in a new appreciation of 'noise' and 'sonic artefacts' within music composition.

Read within this framework, Radio Astronomy could be seen to be a rehabilitation of the poetic resonance behind Renaissance astronomer Johannes Kepler's 'music of the spheres'. Throughout Kepler's career, he focussed on reconciling Pythagorean mysticism and the Ptolemaic system creating precise measurements of planetary orbits. His third law of planetary motion, outlined in his celebrated treatise, Harmonices Mundi (1619), related planetary movements to musical scales and intervals. Though the 'music of the spheres' is no longer an adequate explanation of the physical forces which govern the machinations of the Universe, avant-garde music theory could argue that the actual emissions of the astronomical objects themselves are a new iteration of Keplers' 'music'.