Listen to a Mars sunrise as a NASA rover view becomes song

Mars gets its own soundtrack as scientists turn an Opportunity rover image into music.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
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Opportunity snapped this image on Feb. 15, 2008 on its 4,999th Martian day.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ./Texas A&M

Thanks to our intrepid machines of space exploration, we know a lot about what Mars looks like. But what does it sound like? A new song shows how Mars science can meld with the art of music to create a haunting sonic experience.

A team of scientists from Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Exeter, both in the UK applied data sonification techniques to an image snapped by NASA's Opportunity rover to mark its 5,000th Mars sunrise in early 2018. The result is a song, released this week, that sounds both familiar and otherworldly.

Data sonification is like the audio version of data visualization. The researchers scanned the Opportunity image pixel by pixel and picked out information on color and brightness, which they combined with data on the elevation of the terrain. Algorithms assigned pitch and melody to those data points.

"The quiet, slow harmonies are a consequence of the dark background and the brighter, higher pitched sounds towards the middle of the piece are created by the sonification of the bright sun disk," Anglia Ruskin University said.

The enigmatic soundtrack is more poignant given that Opportunity has been silent since June, when a global dust storm engulfed the planet and cut off power to the rover's solar panels. NASA is still trying to contact the machine. 

We may soon learn a lot more about the sounds of Mars. NASA says the Mars 2020 mission will be equipped with microphones to finally give us ears on the ground.

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