Universe of sound: NASA opens space to the blind

NASA’s Universe of Sound program has shared the splendour of the mind-blowing images of the cosmos, like those captured by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), with people who are blind, low vision or sighted.

“Historically, astronomy has prioritised visuals to present information, with scientists and communicators overlooking the critical need to communicate astrophysics with blind or low-vision audiences and provide novel channels for sighted audiences to process scientific information,” write the authors of a paper published in the journal Frontiers in Communication.

The paper details a study in which 3,184 sighted or blind or low-vision participants were surveyed on their experience of 3 astronomical objects that were “sonified.”

Sonification is the “translation” of data from telescopes into sound. Translating data is already common in astronomy.

Telescopes like NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which sits in orbit 100,000 km above Earth, captures light in the x-ray spectrum which is invisible to the human eye. This information can then be translated into images which we can see and understand.

Similarly, the JWST captures infrared light which humans cannot see. That data is shifted up into the visible range to create the stunning images that we’ve been treated to since it began beaming back to Earth in 2022.

Think of it like whale song, which is so low in pitch that it is below the range of human hearing. The whale song is shifted up by several octaves so that we can hear the intricate melodies and rhythms. Because light can also be considered waves, like sound waves, it’s just a matter of shifting the frequency of light captured by these telescopes into frequencies that we can see.

It doesn’t stop there. Just like the frequency of light waves and sound waves can be shifted to “translate” into something we can see or hear, a frequency of light can be shifted to a frequency of sound. By ascribing different frequencies in this way, astronomers are able to map visual information into sound, allowing those who cannot see the universe to hear it instead.

The researchers found that the surveyed participants were able to engage with the universe.

“Results showed that astrophysical data engaging multiple senses could establish additional avenues of trust, increase access, and promote awareness of accessibility in sighted and blind or low-vision communities,” they write.

Buy cosmos print magazine

Please login to favourite this article.