Listening to the Sun

Listening to the Sun is an experiment in making hands-on science accessible to curious types through affordable DIY technologies. By repurposing easily found and/or discarded consumer electronics, it is possible to create tools that enable the exploration of outer space and our atmosphere without leaving Earth. Coupling these tools with computers and open source software and hardware allows for real time data acquisition, visualization, and sonification.

The tutorials of Listening to the Sun are explorations in radio astronomy, based on the projects of several individuals and organizations: from Chuck Forster’s Itty Bitty Telescope to the Stanford Solar Center’s SuperSID (sudden ionospheric disturbances) monitor. All of the projects reveal ways in which to observe “invisible” electromagnetic radiation. Just as our eyes are able to perceive visible light, the antennas and radio telescopes of Listening to the Sun are able to perceive other wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. With a simple wire loop antenna fed into a sound card, solar flares, coronal mass ejections, the signature of the sunrise and sunset, auroral activity, and other spherics can be made both visible and audible through the use of open source software such as Processing and SpectrumLab. Through creative or direct sonification and visualization, it may be possible to engage a broader audience to scientific phenomena.

Listening to the Sun is also an experiment in urban radio astronomy. Electronics, power lines, and other sources of near field radiation can overpower the desired electromagnetic phenomena of radio astronomy. In a city like New York, near field radiation and other mysterious sources can dominate the power spectrum. By using software, it is possible to remove this noise and amplify modulated VLF signals and the broadband electromagnetic phenomena of geomagnetic activity. However, in a spectacularly noisy city like New York, is it possible to rise above such a dominant noise floor? Also, is this noise compelling? Does the flooded power spectrum reveal some type of electromagnetic ballet between our manmade electronic activity, VLF signals, and geomagnetic phenomena?

Photo credit: NASA/GSFC/James Spann