Voyager 2 sending back eerie' music of the spheres'
Fred Scarf is one of the few people on Earth who listens to the song of other planets and the only one who synthesizes them into the "music of the spheres." The TRW Inc. scientist has an instrument on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Voyager 2 spacecraft which he describes as "sort of a car radio antenna attached to a tape recorder." This picks up the radio waves generated in the vicinity of the spacecraft. Lately, Dr. Scarf has rigged up a microcomputer and music synthesizer to turn the noise of space and planets into a "Star Wars"-style siren song.Skip to next paragraph
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(His instrument, known as the Plasma Wave Detector, was not one of those affected by Voyager's recent problems. Over the weekend the Voyager flight team got the Lazy Susan-type platform that held the spacecraft's cameras and several other instruments operating predictably again. Following a series of tests, they now believe some dust or debris may have been caught in the gears. When the spacecraft cut across the plane of Saturn's rings Aug. 25, the plasma detector picked up a brief and extremely intense burst of noise that Dr. Scarf interprets as caused by a hail of tiny dust particles falling on the spacecraft.
Normally, the sounds that Dr. Scarf records have an eerie quality. Delicate, crystalline tones; bird-like chirps; deep, booming notes, and piercing whistles weave in complex and haunting patterns. Gustav Holst -- composer of the symphony "the Planets" -- would have been edified.
Actually, Dr. Scarf acknowledges, if you were riding on the distant spacecraft that has just looped by Saturn and begun its five-year journey to Uranus, you wouldn't hear much. The interplanetary void is as silent as you might imagine. However, this same space is noisy in radio frequencies; Dr. scarf simply is converting this inaudible cacophony into audible sounds.
In the almost-empty space between planets, radio noise is caused by the solar wind, the current of electrically charged particles -- electrons, protons, and ions -- that stream continuosly outward from the Sun.
Dr. Scarf also has an instrument on the International Sun Earth Explorer, which sits in space just sunward of Earth. On one tape he has synthesized the onset of a solar storm, and intense burst of charged particles which can interfere with communications and electrical power grids on Earth. Four or five hours before the storm strikes our home planet, the satellite detects warbling tones presaging the storm. "As a result we can give several hours warning rather than only a half hour," Dr. scarf explains.
The radio music of the planets has a more complicated origin. Many planets, including Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn, are surrounded by an invisible magnetic atmosphere, called a magnetosphere.
Although this magnetic atmosphere is intangible, it is extremely important. Some animals, and possibly even humans, unconsciously sense the magnetic field and so have an innate sense of direction. Without a magnetosphere a compass would not point north and the northern and southern lights would not exist in their present form. Even more importantly, the magnetosphere protects Earth's surface from cosmic rays and other potentially damaging radiation from outer space.
"Without a magnetosphere, life would have evolved in a totally different fashion," explains Dr. Scarf.
In addition, the magnetosphere gives Earth its natural radio voice. Earth for instance, emits an unearthly "chorus." At least this is the nickname that scientists have given the chirping, birdlike vibrations that emanate from the region above the aurorae.