Hacking the Heavens

If the stars in the sky could play music, what would it sound like? One Drexel engineer used a bit of star data and a special piano to turn the twinkling of the stars into their very own celestial lullaby.

MRP - Kim -Melvin
Dr. Youngmoo Kim (left) introduced NASA astronaut Leland Melvin to the ExCITe Center’s magnetic resonator piano.

A two-day NASA-sponsored hackathon event hosted by Drexel’s ExCITe Center as part of Philly Tech Week turned out a number of interesting ideas, inventions and applications intended to connect people with space.  Some of the appropriately out-of-this-world ideas were a skirt that mirrors the orbit of the International Space Station using LEDs, a mobile/web app that helps users find the exact location of the ISS in the sky and a web app that tracks the movement of the Mars “Curiosity” rover.

ExCITe Director Dr. Youngmoo Kim, who’s been a busy man during Philly Tech Week and the Philadelphia Science Festival, stopped by the event for a few hours to join the more than 100 hackers and coders in tackling 13 different challenges assigned to the Philadelphia group. Kim, whose background is in both music and engineering took on a challenge that entailed finding a way for people to listen to the stars.

MRP-star hack
Dr. Youngmoo Kim hacked a computer program that turned star luminosity data into music on the magnetic resonator piano (left).

By hacking a program intended to turn the Music Entertainment Technology Lab’s magnetic resonator piano into a supporting accompanist cued by viola music, Kim converted NASA’s star luminosity data into a musical “score.”

“The program I started with was intended to use the sound of a viola to excite the resonators of the piano,” Kim said. “My basic hack was to take luminosity data from the Kepler probe and substitute that in place of the viola to essentially have the sound of the stars play the piano.”

Luminosity data is a record of the brightness of a star. This doesn’t change all that much until a planet moves in front of the star on its orbit around it. This regular motion gives provides periodic data which astronomers use in the search for planets and also to determine the distance and age of stars.

Since this periodic data is similar in form to the sound waves of simple musical tones, linking it to the MRP seemed, to Kim, to be the next logical step. The program looks for prominent frequencies within the music, or in this case within the luminosity of the stars, and matches it to a corresponding note on the piano.

“I thought ‘well, we have this great instrument here, why not try it?’” Kim said.

Kim’s hack also serves as a preview to another hackathon that will be hosted by the ExCITe Center on May 18-19 that is themed“Music Hack Day.” For more information visit www.drexel.edu/excite.