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About the Science

What is space actually made of? It's definitely not a perfect vacuum... It's filled with charged particles, electrons and protons, collectively known as plasma. On Earth, we infrequently encounter plasmas (lightning bolts, fluorescent light bulbs, fire), but they are still important to study since the Sun and the rest of our universe are 99.999% made up of plasma!

Sound waves can exist in plasma, but these aren't like the sound waves in air that we're used to experiencing at the Earth's surface. You wouldn't hear this "space audio" if you exposed your ear to the vacuum of space, but we can still use it as a research tool just like astronomers use false color images. In the HARP project, we're analyzing real NASA satellite measurements of plasma, the only difference with most other research being that we're using both audio and visual techniques rather than visual techniques alone. Past research has shown that this combined approach lets us identify complex yet repeatable patterns in the data.

Image credit: Imperial College London

Plasmas stream out from the Sun in all directions, called the solar wind, which spreads throughout our solar system. When the solar wind particles approach Earth, our planet’s magnetic force field mostly pushes them out of the way. But our magnetic shield isn’t perfect or static, it’s always changing in wave-like motions.

Many types of wave-like vibrations can form and travel through plasmas, transforming particle motion into electrical and magnetic energy and vice versa. Our first HARP science campaign focuses on a type of plasma wave that moves very slowly, similar to a vibrating "cosmic harp string" around the Earth.

Image credit: University of Massachusetts Lowell (Q. Zong)

The Earth’s magnetic field resonates with these waves, with longer magnetic strings the further you move away from the Earth. You can't hear them normally because they are Ultra-Low Frequency (ULF) waves, far below the audible range, and because they aren't like the typical sound waves in air that we're used to on the Earth's surface. This video shows how a blast of solar wind can make the strings on Earth's "magnetic harp" vibrate.

Since the plasmas in space are very sparse, they are basically invisible to the eye and cannot even be seen remotely with telescopes. Instead we use specialized satellites to directly measure plasma vibrations in space using magnetic and electric field sensors.

The NASA THEMIS satellites were launched in 2007 to study how plasma energy around Earth can activate the auroras, which sometimes involves plasma waves. The primary goal of the HARP project is to take THEMIS electromagnetic measurements and convert them to audible sound, keeping the original data intact in a process known as audification. The only modification is speeding the data up so that it is within the range of human hearing. A day's worth of measurements can be listened to in about 4 seconds.

Watch this video to learn more about vibrations in space:

Check out NASA's Curious Universe podcast about the discovery of the first space sounds caused by plasma waves.

The near-Earth space environment is very complex- there are many types of plasma vibrations occurring simultaneously so it is challenging to study them. The closest analogy would be the chaotic sound of an orchestra while all the musicians are tuning their instruments at the same time. It is difficult to teach a computer how to separate the plasma waves from the background noise, but the human ear and our brains are already quite good at doing this, so that's where you come in!

As a Citizen Scientist, we are counting on you to help us conduct an experiment- listen to the THEMIS recordings of possible ULF plasma waves and describe precisely what you hear. Is it just formless static noise, or do you hear a tone? Is the tone staying the same or is it rising or falling? Submit your observations and we will compare them with other volunteers.

This work can lead to better understanding of "space weather," the study of how plasmas behave, specifically how the solar wind plasma interacts with Earth's magnetic field. This research is critical because solar eruptions and the resulting plasma waves can be dangerous: frying our GPS and weather satellites, harming astronauts in orbit or on the moon, or even disrupting electricity and communications on the ground! However, plasma waves can also produce the mesmerizing auroras, or northern and southern lights. The more we learn about plasma and our space environment, the better we can predict and prepare for space weather hazards that can affect our society.

Learn more about the hazards of Space Weather here.

Image credit: NASA

Watch this video to hear more examples of space sounds:

About the Project

Heliophysics Audified: Resonances in Plasmas (HARP) is a NASA-funded pilot study to engage Citizen Scientists in space science research. HARP will develop a web-based interface to facilitate analysis of spacecraft data converted into sound (audification). It expands upon the MUSICS project (Magnetospheric Undulations Sonified Incorporating Citizen Scientists) led by Dr. Martin Archer, where similar  work by high school students in the UK led to the discovery of a new type of plasma wave pattern, published in the journal Space Weather.

Meet the HARP Team

Dr. Michael Hartinger,
Space Science Institute/UCLA

Space Plasma Physicist, Principal Investigator for the HARP project. Mike studies Ultra Low Frequency (ULF) plasma waves and other phenomena related to how energy flows between the Sun and different regions in the near-Earth space environment.

Dr. James Harold,
Space Science Institute

Jaime has a research background in space physics, and is currently Director of the National Center for Interative Learning (NCIL) and Director Information Systems and Technology for SSI. He has a long interest in the role of computers, simulations, and games in education.

Anne Holland,
Space Science Institute

As Community Engagement Manager at NCIL, Anne manages all the library (STAR_Net) and museum (Great Balls of Fire) tours, and serves as Project Manager for many NCIL programs. Anne also leads SSI's outreach efforts, visiting schools, libraries and science centers and conducting hands-on science programs.

Dr. Robert Alexander,
Auralab Technologies

Robert is a pioneer in the field of auditory data analysis whose work has resulted in numerous discoveries and publications in the field of space physics. His Ph.D. research produced the most sensitive diagnostic of the electron temperature in the solar wind source region to date, and more recently he designed the core audification routines for NASA's CDAWeb data repository. Robert is bringing his expertise as a data sonification specialist to support all aspects of HARP's UX/UI development.

Dr. Martin Archer,
Imperial College London

Martin is a Stephen Hawking Fellow in Space Physics and Public Engagement. He studies the dynamics and waves of Earth’s space environment. He has been using sound as a tool for advancing science and public engagement, having run several projects which led to the creation of HARP.

Robert M. Candey,

Head of the NASA non-solar heliophysics archive, Space Physics Data Facility (SPDF) at Goddard Space Flight Center, and architect of various science processing systems, visualization and sonification tools, and data analysis systems.

Shane Coyle,
Virginia Tech

Research assistant, Space Science PhD candidate, and member of the The Magnetosphere-Ionosphere Science Team (MIST), Antarctic Geoscience.

Emmanuel Masongsong,

Emmanuel is a Program Manager in the Dept. of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences, and study coordinator for HARP. He oversees lab research activities and education/public outreach for the NASA THEMIS-ARTEMIS and ELFIN CubeSat missions, led by Prof. Vassilis Angelopoulos. As a composer and multi-instrumentalist, seeing HARP come to fruition has been a longtime dream finally realized.

Dr. Alessandra Pacini,

Heliophysics Scientist at NOAA's Solar & Terrestrial Physics Section, works primarily with GOES and DSCOVR space weather data and supports NOAA's future missions. She supports HARP's GUI/website tests and development.

Dr. Xueling Shi,
Virginia Tech

Research Scientist at Virginia Tech. Dr. Shi is assisting with data analysis and visualization for the HARP project. She studies ULF waves and their space weather effects using data from spacecraft and ground-based radars.

Evaldas Vidugiris,
Space Science Institute

Senior developer at SSI with 20 years of educational software development experience. Evaldas is working on the user interface for the HARP project.