Recreating the Sounds of Mars and Venus

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Should we ever succeed in sending astronauts to Mars or Venus, it’s likely they would need to stay on the planets for several months, at least — or possibly set up permanent shop there. But how would they fill their leisure hours? Perhaps they could start a band! But the very different atmospheres of Mars and Venus would make their voices and instruments sound very different than they would on Earth.

Until now, we could only speculate about what those sounds might be. Only a couple of the probes we have sent into to space to explore our solar system have been equipped with microphones, and while sonification of the solar corona and the rings of Saturn offer haunting glimpses of the sounds of space, we have lacked any sense of sounds likely to be heard on the surfaces of other planets.

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Enter Tim Leighton, an acoustician at the University of Southampton in England, who has ingeniously employed the physics and mathematical tools of his trade to create the natural sounds one would be likely to hear on the surface of Mars or Venus — things like lightning, or whirlwinds, or even ice volcanoes found on Saturn’s moon, Titan. Leighton is showcasing his latest extraterrestrial sounds for the first time at a special event held in Winchester, England, this week.

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Back in 2004, Leighton made headlines when he recorded a waterfall in Hampshire and then used those sounds to model what a waterfall made of liquid methane would sound like on Titan, a project commissioned by NASA in honor of the Cassini-Huygens mission.

He calculated the relative properties of water and methane, along with Titan’s unusual atmosphere, and used that input to “transpose” each bubble in the terrestrial waterfall to reflect how it would be different on Titan’s surface — and to reproduce that sound electronically.

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Leighton’s latest project built on that past success using tailor-made software, which takes into account a planet’s unique atmosphere, pressure and fluid dynamics. So what would happen to our astronaut rock band’s sound if they performed on Venus? Apparently they’d sound like Smurfs, only with a deep bass.

“On Venus, the pitch of your voice would become much deeper,” he explains. “That is because the planet’s dense atmosphere means that the vocal cords vibrate more slowly through this ‘gassy soup.’ However, the speed of sound in the atmosphere on Venus is much faster than it is on Earth, and this tricks the way our brain interprets the size of a speaker…. When we hear a voice from Venus, we think the speaker is small, but with a deep bass voice.”

The electronically constructed sounds will make their debut this week at the Astrium Planetarium at INTECH near Winchester, as part of the soundtrack to the “Flight Through the Universe” shows. Attendees will have the chance to hear what Leighton claims is “as close as we can get to the real sound of another world” — at least until we send manned missions to Mars and Venus.

Images: Mars and Venus. Credits: NASA/ESA

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