One of the things I study are the sounds within Earth’s protective magnetosphere. Because there are so few particles in space, however, these sounds are incredibly weak and only present at frequencies thousands of times lower than we can hear. But we can make our recordings of them audible simply by amplifying them and dramatically speeding them up. You can get through a whole year’s worth of these recordings in just 6 minutes!

An representation of the interaction between the Sun's solar wind and the Earth's magnetic field.

An representation of the interaction between the Sun’s solar wind and the Earth’s magnetic field. image credit: NASA

At Queen Mary I’ve been running exploratory projects with these space sounds, where school students listen to it and try to pick things out. The human auditory system is much better than a lot of the visual analysis techniques we usually use, so there was the real possibility of finding something unexpected. And that’s exactly what happened, we’ve just had a study published which reveals the sounds which follow solar storms discovered by a group of school students in London.

What the students discovered was a loud crunching noise followed by a series of whistling sounds whose pitch decreased. This 5 or 6 second event in the audio corresponded to several days in reality.

By looking into these unexpected sounds in more detail, we found that they started just as a coronal mass ejection or solar storm hit Earth’s magnetosphere, causing a big disturbance. Such disturbances, known as space weather, are important because they can adversely affect our technology such as communications satellites and power grids.

It turned out that the whistling sounds were vibrations of Earth’s magnetic field lines, a bit like the vibrations of a guitar string which form a well-defined note. While the solar storm stripped away much of the material present in Earth’s space environment, as it started to recover following the storm, this started to refill again. It was this refilling that caused the pitch of the sounds to drop slowly over time.

“It was truly amazing to hear how significant the event we found was and that it will be forming the basis of a proper scientific paper”

said Isobel, one of the students involved. Another member of the team, Megan, added

“Being a part of the Universities research and the subsequent paper published is truly an amazing opportunity. We gained so much experience and developed many skills during our research that will be useful in our University careers.”

Previously sounds like this had barely been discussed and therefore were thought to be rare, but thanks to the students’ work we found that they were in fact quite common following numerous other storms.

This just goes to show that it there are ways of allowing school students not only to experience what research science is like, but to make a contribution to it as well. You can find out more about our programme of projects for schools here.