What does a supernova sounds like?

June 24, 2014 by Fraser Cain, Universe Today
Artist’s impression of a supernova

We've all been ruined by science fiction, with their sound effects in space. But if you could watch a supernova detonate from a safe distance away, what would you hear?

Grab your pedantry tinfoil helmet and say the following in your best "Comic Book Guy" voice: "Don't be ridiculous. Space does not have sound effects. You would not hear the Death Star exploding. That is wrong." There are no sounds in space. You know that. Why did you even click on this?

Wait! I still have thing I want to teach you. Keep that tinfoil on and stick around. First, a quick review. Why are there sounds? What are these things we detect with our ear shell-flaps which adorn the sides of our hat-resting orb?

Sounds are pressure waves moving through a medium, like air, water or beer. Talking, explosions, and music push air molecules into other molecules. Through all that "stuff" pushing other "stuff" it eventually pushes the "stuff" that we call our eardrum, and that lets us hear a thing. So, much like how there's not enough "stuff" in space to take a temperature reading. There's not enough "stuff" in space to be considered a medium for sound to move through.

Don't get me wrong there's "stuff" there. There's particles. Even in intergalactic depths there are a few hundred particles every cubic meter, and there's much more in a galaxy. They're so far apart though, the particles don't immediately collide with each other allowing a sound wave to pass through a grouping of them.

So, even if you did watch the Death Star explode, you couldn't hear it. This includes zapping lasers, and exploding rockets. Unless two astronauts touched helmets together, then they could talk. The sound pressure moves through the air molecules in one helmet, through the glass transferring from one helmet to the other, and then pushes against the air inside the helmet of the listening astronaut. Then they could talk, or possibly hear one another scream, or just make muffled noises under the face-hugger that had been hiding in their boot.

There's no sound in space, so you can't hear what a sounds like. But if you're willing to consider swapping out your listening meats for other more impressive cybernetic components, there are possibilities. Perhaps I could offer you something in a plasma detection instrument, and you could hear the Sun.

Voyager 1 detects waves of particles streaming from the Sun's solar wind. It was able to hear when it left the heliosphere, the region where the Sun's solar wind buffets against the interstellar medium.

Or you could try something in the Marconi Auralnator 2000 which is the latest in radio detector implants I just made up. If there was such a thing, you could hear the plasma waves in Earth's radiation belts. Which would be pretty amazing, but perhaps somewhat impractical for other lifestyle purposes such as watching Ellen.

Artist’s concept of NASA’s Voyager spacecraft.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

So, if you wanted to hear a supernova you'd need a different kind of ear. In fact, something that's not really an ear at all. There are some exceptions out there. With dense clouds of gas and dust at the heart of a galaxy cluster, you could have a proper medium. NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory has detected sound waves moving through these dust clouds. But you would need ears millions of billions of times more sensitive to hear them.

NASA and other space agencies work tirelessly to convert radio, plasma and other activity into a pressure format that we can actually hear. There are beautiful things happening . I've included a few links below which will take you to a few of these, and they are really quite incredible.

Explore further: The sounds of interstellar space

Related Stories

The sounds of interstellar space

November 4, 2013

Scifi movies are sometimes criticized when explosions in the void make noise. As the old saying goes, "in space, no one can hear you scream." Without air there is no sound.

What does a nebula sound like?

February 10, 2012

What do things sound like out in the cosmos? Of course, sound waves can’t travel through the vacuum of space; however, electromagnetic waves can. These electromagnetic waves can be recorded by devices called spectrographs ...

Sonata in LHCb: The sound of antimatter (w/ Video)

August 27, 2013

In a recent paper the LHCb collaboration at CERN observed two particles changing from matter into antimatter and back again. Now the collaboration has turned that data into sound, so that you can listen to the music of antimatter.

Hard of herring? Not us, say crabs (Update)

June 18, 2014

In new research published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Northeastern University professor Randall Hughes and her team at the Marine Science Center in Nahant, Mass. are the first to show that sound plays ...

Recommended for you


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jun 24, 2014
can we hear our own sounds in space?
Jun 24, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
1 / 5 (1) Jun 24, 2014
arite, i study sound...a lot. the waves are so big that they would entangle in us and we would not perceive it. there is no sound in a vaccum the gravity of space will eat it. however, it will rumble and shake really really crazy when you are in and out of the wave. i guess the star has mass? unless its an explosion of gasses that would be the mass, not rocks that would resonate. it would be weird and awesome... swoosh. rumble. dead.
1 / 5 (3) Jun 24, 2014
Have you ever accidentally touched a hot wire and neutral wire together on a hot circuit?
But since space is a vacuum, its not possible. So we see the light in high energy wavelengths and visible wavelengths.
But unfortunately gravity has blinded physics.
Bob Osaka
not rated yet Jun 25, 2014
Yeah, why did I click on this? Maybe just to look at the goofy blooper reel at the end.
Can't hear the sun, but the heat you feel is generated by the friction of sound waves with no escape medium. Interesting about the speed of sound, you could have expounded more about the heliopause, energetic particles slowing to sub-sonic speeds also you said air, no mention about temperature variables, water which it should said propagates sound 5 times faster than air. Then you left me with a question. What is the speed of sound in the medium of beer?
5 / 5 (1) Jun 25, 2014
All this effort, even as a thought experiment, just to accommodate our limited set of senses. Might just as well ponder how supernovas smell, or what they taste like.
Jun 25, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.