If the Universe Was a Symphony, Here's What Saturn Would Sound Like

Astrophysicists turn Saturn's moons and rings into music.

Astrophysicists from the University of Toronto used the natural patterns of Saturn’s moons and rings to compose two pieces of music.

They did it to celebrate the upcoming end of the Cassini probe, which after twenty years will be decommissioned next month by being crashed into Saturn while gathering more data.

The team included astrophysicist Matt Russo, who along with fellow postdoctoral researcher Dan Tamayo, created the music and played the million-kilometer-long intergalactic instrument. They were joined in the project by the musician Andrew Santaguida. 

To accomplish the feat, the scientists relied on the data of orbital resonances from Saturn’s moons and the trillions of particles floating in its ring system, as gathered by Cassini. Orbital resonances reflect the gravitational influences exerted by celestial bodies when they move past each other. The repeating patterns can be transformed into musical harmonies.

"Wherever there is resonance there is music, and no other place in the solar system is more packed with resonances than Saturn," said Russo.

His partner Tamayo explained the grandiosity of their giant space instrument: 

"Saturn's magnificent rings act like a sounding board that launches waves at locations that harmonize with the planet's many moons, and some pairs of moons are themselves locked in resonances," said Tamayo.

The orbital periods of the six 1st order resonances of Janus that affect the ring system. Credit: SYSTEM Sounds/NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

For the first piece, which follows Cassini’s demise as it plunges towards Saturn, the researchers generated musical notes by increasing (by 27 octaves) the orbital frequencies of Saturn’s six large inner moons. What we essentially hear in the piece are the real frequencies of the moons but “shifted into the human hearing range” as says Russo. Every time a moon would complete an orbit, a computer simulation of the moon system would play corresponding notes. 

A moon system would have two orbital resonances which essentially provide a structure to what would be a droney, lullaby-like melody otherwise. The moons Mimas and Tethys, for example, are locked in a 2:1 resonance, meaning that Mimas orbits two times for every one orbit of Tethys. Moons Enceladus and Dione have the same relationship. As the rhythms are combined, the resulting musical patterns fall in and out of synchronicity in fascinating ways.

"Since doubling the frequency of a note produces the same note an octave higher, the four inner moons produce only two different notes close to a perfect fifth apart," explained Russo, himself a trained musician. "The fifth moon Rhea completes a major chord that is disturbed by the ominous entrance of Saturn's largest moon, Titan." 

The music happens as increasing orbital frequencies of the rings are turned into a rising pitch, while the volume goes up and down in correspondence to the brightness and darkness of the band of the rings. The very ending - the death of Cassini - is inspired by a major chord in the song “A day in the Life” by The Beatles, according to the musically-inclined scientists.

 Check out the piece here:

The second piece, also honoring the last few months of Cassini's mission, shows off the scales as performed by the moons Janus and Epimethus - two small moons that orbit outside Saturn’s main ring system. They are locked in a 1:1 resonance - the only such pair in the solar system. They basically swap places every four years. The music reflects their relationship by a unison drone with a constantly shifting but repeating rhythm. Russo played a C# note on the guitar for every orbit. A cello plays the note for each resonance in the rings.

"Each ring is like a circular string, being continuously bowed by Janus and Epimetheus as they chase each other around their shared orbit," " said Russo.Saturn's dancing moons now have a soundtrack.“

Check out that piece here:

The group also recently completed a similar musical mission with respect to the Trappist-1 planetary system.

A wood carving of Saturn's main ring system designed for the visually impaired. Credit: SYSTEM Sounds.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Why I wear my life on my skin

For Damien Echols, tattoos are part of his existential armor.

Top Video Splash
  • In prison Damien Echols was known by his number SK931, not his name, and had his hair sheared off. Stripped of his identity, the only thing he had left was his skin.
  • This is why he began tattooing things that are meaningful to him — to carry a "suit of armor" made up the images of the people and things that have significance to him, from his friends to talismans.
  • Echols believes that all places are imbued with divinity: "If you interact with New York City as if there's an intelligence behind... then it will behave towards you the same way.".

A world map of Virgin Mary apparitions

She met mere mortals with and without the Vatican's approval.

Strange Maps
  • For centuries, the Virgin Mary has appeared to the faithful, requesting devotion and promising comfort.
  • These maps show the geography of Marian apparitions – the handful approved by the Vatican, and many others.
  • Historically, Europe is where most apparitions have been reported, but the U.S. is pretty fertile ground too.
Keep reading Show less

Think you’re bad at math? You may suffer from ‘math trauma’

Even some teachers suffer from anxiety about math.

Image credit: Getty Images
Mind & Brain

I teach people how to teach math, and I've been working in this field for 30 years. Across those decades, I've met many people who suffer from varying degrees of math trauma – a form of debilitating mental shutdown when it comes to doing mathematics.

Keep reading Show less