What does space sound like? Scientists recreate beautiful sounds of space - Listen here

The mystery and beauty of deep space is being brought to life for the blind and visually impaired in a world first. The show, titled A Dark Tour of the Universe, launched today at the British Science Festival. It offers a tactile experience of the Universe by using 3D models of astronomical images and “sonification” of real astronomical datasets.

Sonification is the use of non-speech audio to convey information or perceptualise data.

The show is a collaboration between European Southern Observatory (ESO) Fellow Chris Harrison and visually impaired University of Portsmouth astronomer Dr Nicolas Bonne.

Dr Bonne leads The Tactile Universe in which stars, black holes and other mysteries of space are recreated in touchable form, providing the visually impaired a method of “seeing” space.

Dr Bonne said: “It’s not exactly braille for stars, but that description might help people imagine what we’ve come up with both for this sonic show and for The Tactile Universe.

“We wanted to find new ways of opening up the drama and majesty of space to a wider audience.

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“Just because someone is blind or visually impaired doesn’t mean they can’t experience what sighted people experience when they look up at a vast night sky dotted with stars of many colours.”

A Dark Tour of the Universe reimagines stars’ brightness, colour and position as volume.

Audio volume relates to stars’ brightness, while tone indicates colour, with sophisticated surround sound ensuring their position is captured.

Dr Bonne, who was born visually impaired, said he always knew he would be an astronomer, even when as a young child, he could see only three or four stars where others could see thousands.

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He said: “People have always looked up at the night sky and wondered what’s going on up there.

“There’s just so much to be inspired by. It’s something that links everybody on the planet together, regardless of who they are and what other differences they may have.

“Because astronomy is such a visual subject, it can be hard for visually impaired people to access information about it.

“By finding ways to communicate ideas through vision, touch and sound, we’re putting everybody on the same level and letting them experience the same thing at the same time.”

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A Dark Tour of the Universe starts with stars appearing as they are from the platform of ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile.

Using real-time data of position, magnitudes and colours of stars, a beautiful surround-sound effect is created, allowing the audience to listen to the stars appearing.

Highlights of the show include listening to variable stars or to galaxies merging and feeling 3D models of some of ESO’s best astronomical images, including the first picture of a black hole and the 360-degree panoramic image of the Milky Way.

One of the sonified datasets relates to the discovery of exoplanet NGTS-1b, using the Next Generation Transit Survey (NGTS) instrument at ESO’s Paranal Observatory.

NGTS-1b was the third gas giant to had been observed transiting an M-dwarf star.

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