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Everyday science

Everyday science

Create films with the sounds of space

19 Jan 2017 James Dacey


By James Dacey

Last weekend I went to a Davie Bowie tribute night at a local pub in Bath. It was a fun evening – roughly a year since the artist passed away – where local musicians played classic tracks by Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke and several of Bowie’s other alter egos. One of the more surreal moments of the night was when a man in a pink suit took to the stage to play what the band called his “spaceship” – producing a whirring, repetitive electronic sound that built up to a crescendo. For a few minutes we were transported into space, just as Bowie intended with many of his memorable songs.

If you enjoyed visualizing this image of a quirky local pub being transformed by cosmic sounds, then you might be interested in a new competition launched today by Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). The Space Sound Effects (SSFX) contest is inviting people to create short films across all genres incorporating real audio recordings made in space, which are available to download on the competition website. Films should be no longer than 15 minutes and there is £2000 in prizes up for grabs, shared across different age categories. It is free to enter and submissions are welcome up until 3 July.

Common wisdom dictates that sound, at least as we understand it on Earth, cannot propagate through the vacuum of space. But in reality space is never truly empty, such as the region surrounding the Earth. In order to make these sounds audible to the human ear, they have been boosted by at least 160 dB and the frequencies have also been dramatically increased – it’s the equivalent of an entire year that has been squashed into six minutes. Faint as they may be, however, the unedited native space sounds are of interest to physicists who investigate their effects on communication technologies and weather forecasts.

“From Star Wars to Sunshine, space has inspired and entertained cinema fans for decades. Now we are asking filmmakers to get creative and use an authentic piece of scientific research to realize their vision,” says Martin Archer, a space-plasma researcher at QMUL. “These bizarre noises will increase the listener’s curiosity about the world around us and make us think about the age-old question: what does space sound like?”

Whether you plan to create a film or not, I would still recommend taking a listen to these weird and wonderful sounds. To me, they evoke the image of a big slimy alien crunching its way along a pebbly shoreline having just crashed its ship in the sea. But perhaps I’ve spent too long listening to the rhythms of that pink-suited musician.


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