CHICAGO — New cutting-edge software is helping scientists create sounds from other planets, a development that could aid in the search for extraterrestrial life. A British researcher has developed a program that can generate the sounds of otherworldly environments and predict how human voices might change on distant planets.
“For decades, we have sent cameras to other planets in our solar system and learned a great deal from them. However, we never really heard what another planet sounded like until the very recent Mars Perseverance mission,” says Timothy Leighton, a professor of Ultrasonics and Underwater Acoustics at the University of Southampton.
The researcher explains that scientists can utilize sound on other planets to understand properties that would otherwise require extensive and expensive equipment to determine, such as the chemical composition of rocks, variations in atmospheric temperature, or the roughness of the terrain. The professor suggests that these extraterrestrial sounds could also assist in the search for alien life. He used Jupiter’s moon Europa as an example, which appears inhospitable on the surface, but underneath its icy shell, there’s a potentially life-supporting ocean.
“The idea of sending a probe on a seven-year trip through space, then drilling or melting to the seabed, poses mind-boggling challenges in terms of finance and technology,” says Prof. Leighton in a media release. “The ocean on Europa is 100 times deeper than Earth’s Arctic Ocean, and the ice cap is roughly 1,000 times thicker. However, instead of sending a physical probe, we could let sound waves travel to the seabed and back and do our exploring for us.”
Leighton explains that the unique atmospheres of planets affect the speed and absorption of sound. For instance, the thin, carbon dioxide-rich Martian atmosphere absorbs more sound than Earth’s, making distant sounds seem fainter.
Scroll down to see why it would be hard to have a conversation on Mars!
“Anticipating how sound travels is crucial for designing and calibrating equipment such as microphones and speakers,” adds Leighton. “Listening to sounds from other planets is beneficial not just for scientific purposes, but also for entertainment. Science fiction films often visually depict other worlds, but they frequently lack the immersive quality of how those worlds would sound.”
Acoustic studies have proven vital during the Huygens lander’s descent into Titan’s atmosphere in 2005 and the more recent Mars InSight and Mars 2020 missions. These successful missions included custom acoustic sensors that operated over a wide spectrum, from very low frequencies, or infrasound, below the human hearing threshold, to ultrasound above human hearing.
The new software will be used to showcase predictions of the sounds of other worlds at planetariums and museums. In the case of Mars, actual sounds from the American-European Perseverance team and China’s Zhurong mission will be included.
The study is part of a special session bridging the gap between the acoustics and planetary science communities, presented at the annual meeting of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) in Chicago.
How different would hearing be on Mars?
In 2022, the newest manmade visitor on Mars provided humans with the first clues about what the red planet sounds like. NASA’s Perseverance robot successfully recorded what scientists are calling the “sound environment” on Mars.
Using a specially-designed microphone, the rover recorded the Martian winds for the first time. The team notes that the sounds are within the audible spectrum of humans if mankind ever travels to the red planet — sitting between 20 Hz and 20 kHz.
Just as Prof. Leighton notes, however, the atmospheres on other planets are much different than our own. While the sound barrier on our planet is about 761 miles per hour, it’s only 537 miles per hour on Mars.
Moreover, the red planet actually has two sound barriers! One speed of sound is for the treble and one measures the bass. Specifically, bass refers to anything up to 150Hz, or 150 oscillations per second. These are the “low” sounds that your body can feel when they’re very loud. Treble, on the other hand, corresponds to sounds from 6KHz (6,000 oscillations per second) up to the limit of human hearing.
The speed at which sound dissipates on Mars is much higher than it is here, especially the treble — which scientists say dies out quickly even over short distances. Therefore, if two people try to have a conversation on Mars, it would be hard to hear the other person if they stand more than 15 feet away from each other.
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South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.