Astronomy show reveals the sounds of space for the visually impaired

Nicolas Bonne

The beauty of deep space is being brought to life for the blind and visually impaired by turning starlight into sound

  • 16 September 2019
  • 5 min read

The mystery and beauty of deep space is being brought to life for the blind and visually impaired for the first time by turning starlight into sound.

The show, A Dark Tour of the Universe, launched today at the British Science Festival. It is a novel and exciting collaboration between European Southern Observatory (ESO) Fellow Chris Harrison and University of Portsmouth visually impaired astronomer Dr Nicolas Bonne.

It offers a tactile experience of the Universe by using 3D models of astronomical images and sonification of real astronomical datasets.

Sighted visitors will be encouraged to witness the show blindfolded.

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.

Dr Nicolas Bonne, Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation

Dr Bonne leads The Tactile Universe in which stars, black holes and other mysteries of space are recreated in touchable form, to give the blind and visually impaired a way of ‘seeing’ space. It is now available throughout Britain, for schools and others to engage with science.

The A Dark Tour of the Universe show launching today will eventually also be made publicly available, so people can listen to space from computers and tablets at home.

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. 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.”

Montage of 3D models and their visual counterparts

In A Dark Tour of the Universe, stars’ brightness, colour and position in the sky are all reimagined as volume (louder for brighter stars), and tone to indicate colour. Surround sound ensures the position of stars is captured.

Dr Bonne, who works in the University’s Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, and colleagues developed The Tactile Universe in 2016.

It has since captured the imaginations of sighted and visually impaired children and adults across Britain.

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.

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.”

A Dark Tour of the Universe begins with stars appearing as they are from the platform of ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, on the night of 13 September 2019. Using real data of position, magnitudes and colours of stars, a beautiful surround-sound effect is created, allowing the audience to listen to the stars appear. 

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, taken by ESO photo ambassador Serge Brunier. One of the datasets that has been sonified is related 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. 

The project, in collaboration with BMW, has been shortlisted for the industrial TCT awards, which are celebrating the innovators, technologies and collaborators behind the leading examples of Additive Manufacturing, 3D Printing, Design and Engineering across the globe. The awards ceremony will take place on September 25, 2019. 

German company BMW printed 300 3D models for the show, while the international company Arup used their acoustic-consulting team and Sydney-based SoundLab to produce sonified astrophysics concepts and data and created a soundtrack using full surround sound (6.1). Arup’s UK Midlands office provided the technical support required for the premiere showing at the British Science Festival. 

James Reevell, a UK musician and teacher, created all of the music and “composer’s impressions” for the show. He used an ESO-produced simulation movie of a black hole as inspiration for one of his compositions.

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