How a Singing Comet captured the imaginations of the masses:

The comet is singing

Article written by Deb Carveth

So community singing has reached space with news a week ago about the song emitting from Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Comet 67P has been chased through space for the past ten years by the Rosetta spacecraft in a bid by scientists to better understand the origin of the world and maybe even ‘the origin of life itself’1 and scientists charting the voyage have now reported that this amalgamation of frozen leftovers from the formation of the planets and the sun, is singing.

Social media has been caught up in the romantic notion of this comet calling out to Rosetta across the stars, the moons and all of the cosmos, as it hurtles towards the sun. Articles and speculation about the strange sounds have been trending and a recording of Rosetta’s song on soundcloud has been played more than 1.8 million times at the time of writing.

But what is going on? Has Comet 67P had enough of being brushed off as a ‘dirty snowball’* and decided to share with the world what comets do to entertain themselves as they traverse the universe?

Selecting what to sing along to is a vital component of any road trip, after all. Is it the kooky song of an ancient but optimistic gas ball looking to hook up and discuss space matter(s)? Nope, as with the creation of all sound, what it boils down to, is science, baby. Science and maths.

Albert Einstein once said that “Everything is determined by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as for the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust – we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.”2

The sounds coming from 67P are thought to be oscillations in the magnetic field surrounding the comet and were picked up by Rosetta’s onboard instruments once the spacecraft drew within 100km of 67P. Scientists believe that the sounds are being created by the comet’s activity, ‘perhaps as it releases neutral particles into space where they become electrically charged, or ionized.’3 But possibly the most magical fact to emerge from these reports is that “the exact physical mechanism behind the oscillations remains a mystery.’4 And it is beautiful! (Its frequencies have been increased 10,000 times to make it audible to our merely human ears.)

All sound created and emitted in the course of our music making is formed through vibration, oscillation and sound waves and is all a part of the music of the cosmos because “matter is a wave structure of Space and all matter vibrates and has a resonant frequency.” The pitch of the note is dictated by the frequency of the vibration. Got that?!

For most of us though, intrigue in the singing comet most likely stems from a desire to indulge the romantic side of our souls and abandon scientific theory in contemplating the notion of singing in space. We look to the skies and the stars to feel release and to escape, for a moment, the constraints of being earthbound.

How nice it would be and what a comfort to think that somewhere out there, somewhere cold and foreign and impossibly distant, there is something as reassuring and familiar as song.

*just for the record, if there isn’t already a cocktail out there called ‘a dirty snowball, there darned well should be!

artists impression of the singing comet. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam

1″The Rosetta mission has a potential for making spectacular discoveries about the origin of the world and, perhaps, about the origin of life itself,” French astrophysicist Professor Jean-Pierre Bibring. Quote from Albert Einstein “On Mathematics and Music: The Wave Structure of Matter in Space.”

3: November 11. 2014

4: November 11 2014


2 thoughts on “How a Singing Comet captured the imaginations of the masses:”

  1. It would be nice to know the truth of this; its impossible to tell even looking at the sites of NASA or ESA. CNet says the sound is formed by a “translation” process, which sounds more reasonable. There is talk elsewhere of “oscillation in the magnetic field”: if this is sound, then light is sound! Does it instead mean physical vibration in the (magnetically charged) plasma? that might be called sound

    1. It’s fascinatingly mind boggling, to say the least, Michael. We were drawn to the story because of a whim to indulge ourselves in the romanticism of singing reaching as far as space. As for a true and complete scientific explanation of ‘the song’, we remain in the dark too .. Thanks for commenting and if you unveil anything else in your quest to know more, keep us posted.

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