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Release: March 2, 2001

UI space physicist's sounds of space inspire work of art

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- In a case of art imitating science, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has commissioned a musical composition influenced by the sounds of space gathered by a University of Iowa space physicist.

In particular, NASA has commissioned a work for string quartet based upon the sounds of space collected on various spacecraft over the last 35 years by internationally known researcher Donald Gurnett. Plans call for the piece to be written by renowned minimalist composer Terry Riley of California and premiered by the world famous Kronos Quartet at the University of Iowa's Hancher Auditorium in the fall of 2002.

When concert-goers finally settle into their seats, they may hear something resembling an extraterrestrial "spring," for although a human being floating through space would hear nothing but silence, space can be a noisy place for a radio equipped with sensitive antennas.

For one thing, "chorus emissions," or rising tones similar to the sound of chirping birds, result from the solar wind of electrically charged particles flowing outward from the sun and colliding with Jupiter's ionosphere, or trapped layer of charged particles. Another sound is the "whistler," a rapidly descending tone caused by lightning discharges. Scientists have detected chorus and whistlers at Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

According to Bert Ulrich, curator of NASA's Art Program in Washington, D.C., the idea of commissioning a work of art based upon Gurnett's space sounds was a natural for NASA. "We wanted to get a piece of music commissioned, and we were really interested in using captured sounds in space. NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab directed us to Dr. Gurnett," he says. "For performers, Kronos was at the top of the list."

Ulrich says that although few people realize it, NASA has long maintained an art collection consisting of photographs, paintings and other media by such artists as Andy Warhol and Annie Liebowitz that add an intensely personal dimension to some of the most advanced scientific discoveries in history.

For Gurnett, the interest shown by NASA's Art Program is an honor that adds to an already distinguished career. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he is a veteran of more than 25 major spacecraft projects, including the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 flights to the outer planets, the Galileo mission to Jupiter, and the Cassini mission to Saturn. Many of his space sounds were recorded as he made the first observations of plasma waves and low-frequency radio emissions in the magnetospheres of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune and discovered lightning in the atmospheres of Jupiter and Neptune.

Recently, Gurnett failed to detect lightning at Venus in a search employing the Cassini spacecraft, scheduled to begin a four-year exploration of Saturn, its rings, atmosphere and moons on July 1, 2004. Under a $9.6 million NASA contract, Gurnett and an international team of some18 co-investigators will use the craft's Radio and Plasma Wave Science Instrument to measure Saturn's powerful radio emissions, as well as its lightning discharges. Although it is impossible to predict all of the wonders Cassini will provide scientists, one thing is certain: Donald Gurnett will once again cup an ear toward space and add to his "greatest hits" collection, featuring the sounds of space.