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

Astrophysicists turn Saturn's moons and rings into music.

Saturn's major moons
The orbital periods, scaled frequencies, and musical notes of Saturn's major moons. Credit: SYSTEM Sounds/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Elisabetta Bonora/Marco Faccin

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.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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