Science & Technology

Hear the Haunting "Music" Detected Between Saturn and Enceladus

There's a haunting whistle from space that shows the power of plasma between a planet and its moon. NASA just released a recording of what this substance sounds like when it moves between Saturn and Enceladus: an icy moon that could host life.

"Hearing" Radio

NASA recently posted the recording on its website, explaining that we humans can only hear it through a bit of technological magic. The Cassini spacecraft recorded these interactions in radio waves — which, despite the name, are made of light, not sound. Researchers then compressed and converted the radio waves into a 29-second sound file audible to humans.

You can read more about the new research in a pair of papers in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, which are located here and here.

The otherworldly noises sound a bit like a space whale, or perhaps a fast-moving jet plane diving into the water. But what are we really listening to? It's the powerful magnetic environment of Saturn interacting with Enceladus. Saturn — a huge gas-giant planet — has a magnetic field much stronger than Earth's. And Enceladus is no barren wasteland like Earth's moon. Enceladus spurts water vapor that contains the building blocks of life, giving us hope that the moon is habitable.

"Enceladus is this little generator going around Saturn, and we know it is a continuous source of energy," said lead researcher Ali Sulaiman, who is a planetary scientist at the University of Iowa. "Now we find that Saturn responds by launching signals in the form of plasma waves, through the circuit of magnetic field lines connecting it to Enceladus hundreds of thousands of miles away," added Sulaiman, who also was part of the team for the Cassini instrument that collected the data.

Last-Minute Legacy

It would be great to collect more of these sounds, but here's the rub: Cassini is dead. The spacecraft was low on fuel in early September when it made the recording. Only two weeks later, it crashed deliberately into Saturn; the suicide move was supposed to protect potentially life-friendly moons (such as Enceladus) from contamination.

NASA has no immediate plans to send a spacecraft back to Saturn, but there is another spacecraft called Juno at Jupiter that could tell us more about that planet's magnetic field. Jupiter has the most powerful magnetic field in the solar system. Spacecraft can only stay inside the most intense part of Jupiter's magnetic environment for short periods of time. Otherwise, they get fried.

Plasma waves and magnetic fields all sound a bit esoteric until you remember that NASA is super-concerned about radiation for its astronaut crews. Researchers are very interested in radiation levels all across the solar system. If an astronaut gets too much radiation, they could get radiation sickness or a higher risk of cancer. They might even die. Every new discovery helps protect future space-farers — and sounds cool to boot.

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See even more of Saturn in the NASA book "The Saturn System Through The Eyes Of Cassini." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Elizabeth Howell July 17, 2018

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