In space, no one can hear you scream, but that doesn’t mean sound doesn’t exist at all. Some of the real sounds captured from the depths of outer space are pure nightmare fodder that horror filmmakers should really consider adding to their next features, space-horror or not.
Space itself is a vacuum, which means that there isn’t a medium to transmit sound waves in the same way that the sound of our voices travel by vibrating air molecules into each other here on planet Earth. But there’s still stuff floating around in that vacuum, and that stuff can make waves that can translate to sound.
Also, space isn’t absolutely void of sound. Some of the space stuff floating is dust and interstellar gases left over from stars that have met their explosive ends. Patches of this dust gas and debris can become dense enough that they can transmit sound waves.
“Some of the real sounds captured from the depths of outer space are pure nightmare fodder […]”
That said, the sound these interstellar gas patches transmit is often at frequencies outside of human hearing — we’d have to speed them up and amplify them a ton to even perceive them. As an aside, we should be grateful that our planet is not in a dense area of interstellar medium. It might transmit some sound, but the tradeoff would be that it would interfere with the Sun’s light traveling to Earth. I’ll take the Sun over sound, thanks.
Most of the sounds that NASA and other agencies have captured using instruments on probes, spacecraft, and telescopes, were some measure of waves other than sound waves (such as gravitational waves, radio emissions, plasma waves, and even light waves). These types of non-sound data can be converted to sound in a way that lets us “hear” space. Check out this sound model built by converting gravitational waves put out by two black holes colliding for an example.
From LIGO Lab Caltech & MIT:
Gravitational waves sent out from a pair of colliding black holes have been converted to sound waves, as heard in this animation. On September 14, 2015, LIGO observed gravitational waves from the merger of two black holes, each about 30 times the mass of our sun. The incredibly powerful event, which released 50 times more energy than all the stars in the observable universe, lasted only fractions of a second.
The most unsettling aspect of listening to these gravitational waves is that you’re basically listening to what amounts to an apocalyptic event…and the sound of the apocalypse goes *bloop!* not unlike a cartoon drop of water or an email notification. The destructive forces of neutron stars colliding is just as chilling in how cartoonish it sounds. It’s weirdly more comforting to think of cataclysmic events in terms of explosions and fires than to realize that the reality is more like cheerful beeps, bloops, and whoops.
Here are a few of my personal favourites:
Sounds of Saturn and its moon Enceladus:
These are sounds of interacting plasma waves (the fourth state of matter after solid, liquid, and gas) that have been converted into something we can hear. These screaming and whooshing sounds are undeniably spacey, and would be right at home in some cosmic horror or underground lab soundtrack. The best description (maybe surprisingly) comes from Youtube comments: “Saturn sounds like tortured souls in hell being tortured.”
Kepler: Star KIC7671081B Light Curve Waves to Sound:
Light curves are essentially graphs of measured brightness or light intensity versus time. These light curve waves, captured using the Kepler telescope, are dramatically synth-y when converted to sound and wouldn’t be misplaced in a Disasterpeace soundtrack for a movie like It Follows.
Ultra Cold Liquid Helium-3:
This sound actually comes from closer to home. Strange phenomena make super cold liquid helium change volume, speed up, slow down and vibrate around the Earth’s North Pole, producing what NASA called “quantum whistles”.
Voyager Plasma Sounds:
These plasma sounds were captured in 1979 as the space probe Voyager 2 passed through Jupiter’s outer magnetosphere. The result is super atmospheric and I want to hear it playing over establishing shots of a mysterious door at the end of a dark hallway, or an empty, swinging porch swing. If you heard these sounds in a movie, you would just know that everything is haunted and that something bad is about to happen.
Even NASA knows that its recordings are eerie, and curated a list called “Spooky Sounds From Across the Solar System”. You can listen to the full playlist of eerie sounds captured from the depths of outer space on NASA’s Soundcloud.
Special thanks to Tyler August, Space Science Communicator at Science North, for nerding out about space sounds with me.