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Scientists Decode the Song of the Sun

Solar Prominence

A twisting solar prominence erupts on March 30, 2010. Now a scientist has taken images like these and translated the sun's eruptions into music.NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

The sun gives off more than just heat and light. One astronomer thinks it makes music, too. 

From here on Earth, that great ball of fire in the sky appears to be perfectly round. But closer study reveals storms and giant gaseous eruptions covering the surface of the sun. Now one scientist has found a way to translate those eruptions into strangely beautiful music. 

The giant eruptions lie in the outer layer of the sun, a region called the solar corona. It's the most mysterious and least understood layer of the sun's atmosphere. New satellites such as NASA's Space Dynamics Observatory have recorded high-resolution images of it, showing in unprecedented detail the large, banana-shaped magnetic structures known as coronal loops that fill the corona. 

These giant magnetic loops -- some over 100,000 miles long -- play a fundamental role in governing the physics of the corona. They also vibrate just like a guitar string or the reed in a flute, and with the help of some complex algorithms, the vibrations of these solar flares can be converted to music, a process called solar magneto-seismology similar to the methods used to study earthquakes.. 

Sound of the Sun (courtesy Richard Morton) by University of Sheffield

"It was strangely beautiful and exciting to hear these noises for the first time from such a large and powerful source," professor Robertus von Fáy-Siebenbürgen, head of the solar physics research group at Sheffield University behind the study, told  London paper the Telegraph.

The sun's coronal loops make a vibrating chord, one that resonates beautifully as it hangs in the air. Fáy-Siebenbürgen, the astronomer behind the project, has posted the sound of the sun online, at SoundCloud.com, and visitors to the site are already thinking of ways to incorporate the music of the sun into their own music. 

Writes Leon V., "Can you provide a better resolution sample? I produce trance and chilllout music so I will try to use it (with your permission) in my next trance track."

Fáy-Siebenbürgen found the music beautiful, but he's more interested in what the music of the sun can teach us about the physics behind the solar body. "It is providing us with a new way of learning about the sun and giving us a new insight into the physics that goes on in the sun's outer layers, where temperatures reach millions of degrees," he said. 

Studying this magnetic solar atmosphere will help his team, which includes postgraduate student Richard Morton and postdoctoral research associate Dr Youra Taroyan (all from the department of applied mathematics), make further breakthroughs into understanding the key and central unresolved problems of modern astrophysics. Are there millions of localized magnetic explosions releasing the energy necessary to keep the corona at millions of degrees or does the energy come from within the sun itself?

The news of the sun's music comes as the University of Sheffield launches a unique venture entitled Project Sunshine, led by the faculty of science. The Project aims to unite scientists to harness the power of the sun and tackle the biggest challenge facing the world today: meeting the increasing food and energy needs of the world's population. 

They hope Project Sunshine will change the way scientists think and work and become the inspiration for a new generation of scientists.

Fáy-Siebenbürgen said the study's results "allow us to gain a fundamentally new insight into the fascinating but at the same time very mysterious solar atmosphere."