es2105 — Organisation Release
"Hear" the Universe: a planetarium show for blind children
Audio Universe: Tour of the Solar System is an inclusive sound-based educational astronomy show
10 December 2021
What do the stars sound like? A new project that allows blind and partially sighted children and adults to ‘hear’ the Universe is now available in the ESO archive. Audio Universe: Tour of the Solar System takes the audience on an immersive journey inside a special spacecraft fitted with a ‘sonification machine’ that turns the light from objects in space into sounds.
In the show, each star in the sky is represented by a musical note. The colour of the star determines the pitch of the note and the brightness of the stars determines the volume of the note. The brightest stars also appear first (as is the case for stars appearing after sunset). The position of each star determines in which speakers it can be heard. For example, below you can listen to the sky above the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile.
Audio Universe: Tour of the Solar System was created by astronomers from the universities of Newcastle and Portsmouth, with support from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the Royal Astronomical Society. It has initially been released in English, Spanish, and Italian, with other languages to follow. ESO Supernova is currently working on a German version, due to be launched in spring 2022.
The creator and director of the show, Dr Chris Harrison, astronomer at Newcastle University and ex-ESO Fellow, said: “Interest in using sound to represent astronomical data has been growing over the past few years because astronomers have realised the potential to use our ears, instead of, or as well as our eyes, to explore the latest gigantic datasets coming from telescopes. Furthermore, a couple of blind professional astronomers have also used sound for their research – because traditional visual techniques are limited in usefulness for them.
“By developing sound-based approaches to represent astronomy that are useful for children all the way to professional researchers, we hope with our Audio Universe project to increase accessibility to enjoy the wonders of the Universe and to increase representation of the blind community as professional astronomers.”
Through a special computer code called Sonification Tools and Resources for Astronomers Using Sound Synthesis (STRAUSS), real astronomical data is represented through sound in many different ways. As such, music is a key part of the show. In contrast to standard astronomy shows, the soundtrack was designed first so that it would be educational and enjoyable on its own, and only then were visual animations added.
Members of the blind and vision impaired community were vital throughout the development of the show. Blind astronomer Dr Nic Bonne from the University of Portsmouth’s Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, acted as a consultant on the project and he also plays himself in the show and acts as the expert tour guide. Dr Bonne said: “There are astronomers who have been using sound rather than visual graphs and images. As someone with a vision impairment I really wish this kind of show had existed when I was a kid.”
- Making of Audio Universe: Tour of the Solar System (4min39s - mini documentary): https://youtu.be/_sSTgruE76I
- Flat screen trailer for Audio Universe: Tour of the Solar System (1min39s): https://youtu.be/C_sNaaTeyjY
- Flat screen, full version of Audio Universe: Tour of the Solar System (35 minutes): https://youtu.be/4jH1WNpDi10
- "A Sonic Journey", musical composition by Dr Leigh Harrison (4min21s): https://youtu.be/ZWG9YiL-cz4
The ESO Supernova Planetarium & Visitor Centre
The ESO Supernova Planetarium & Visitor Centre is a cutting-edge astronomy centre for the public and an educational facility, located at the site of the ESO Headquarters in Garching bei München. The centre hosts a digital planetarium with a tilted, 360-degree dome, 14 metres in diameter, and an interactive exhibition, sharing the fascinating world of astronomy and ESO to inspire coming generations to appreciate and understand the Universe around us. All content is provided in English and German. Entrance to the exhibition is free. For planetarium shows, guided tours and other activities, visitors need to book and pay for their tickets online. For more details visit: supernova.eso.org
The ESO Supernova Planetarium & Visitor Centre is a cooperation between the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies (HITS). The building is a donation from the Klaus Tschira Stiftung (KTS), a German foundation, and ESO runs the facility.
ESO Supernova is proudly supported by: LOR Foundation, Evans & Sutherland and Sky-Skan.
The Klaus Tschira Stiftung (KTS) was created in 1995 by the physicist and SAP co-founder Klaus Tschira (1940-2015). It is one of Europe’s largest privately funded non-profit foundations. The Foundation promotes the advancement of the natural sciences, mathematics, and computer science, and strives to raise appreciation for these fields. The Foundation’s commitment begins in kindergarten and continues in schools, universities, and research facilities. The Foundation champions new methods of scientific knowledge transfer, and supports both development and intelligible presentation of research findings.
The Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies (HITS gGmbH) was established in 2010 by the physicist and SAP co-founder Klaus Tschira (1940-2015) and the Klaus Tschira Foundation as a private, non-profit research institute. HITS conducts basic research in the natural sciences, mathematics and computer science, with a focus on processing, structuring, and analysing large amounts of data. The research fields range from molecular biology to astrophysics. The shareholders of HITS are the HITS Stiftung, which is a subsidiary of the Klaus Tschira Foundation, Heidelberg University and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). HITS also cooperates with other universities and research institutes and with industrial partners. The base funding of HITS is provided by the HITS Stiftung with funds received from the Klaus Tschira Foundation. The primary external funding agencies are the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the German Research Foundation (DFG), and the European Union.
ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It has 16 Member States: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile and with Australia as a Strategic Partner. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope and its world-leading Very Large Telescope Interferometer as well as two survey telescopes, VISTA working in the infrared and the visible-light VLT Survey Telescope. Also at Paranal ESO will host and operate the Cherenkov Telescope Array South, the world’s largest and most sensitive gamma-ray observatory. ESO is also a major partner in two facilities on Chajnantor, APEX and ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre Extremely Large Telescope, the ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.
- Audio Universe project website
- Download Audio Universe for fulldome
- Audio Universe flatscreen version
- Making of Audio Universe: Tour of the Solar System mini documentary
ESO Supernova Planetarium & Besucherzentrum
Senior Media Manager (Research Themes), University of Portsmouth
Media Relations Manager, Newcastle University