Magnetic Highway

Suite for digital sounds and scientific data from a space probe



Magnetic Highway is inspired and informed by the exiting story of the space probe Voyager 1 which after more than 35 years of traveling, is now reaching the very end of our solar system. In about 40.000 years it will pass by the star AC+79 3888 and in about 296.000 years it will pass Sirius.

Magnetic Highway consists of four pieces

  1. Voyager’s Mission
  2. Six Presidents
  3. Pale Blue Dot
  4. Termination Shock

1. Voyager’s Mission [33.16 min]

Voyager’s Mision is based on a generative arrangement of sound material so that this piece can get longer and longer according to the increasing time it takes the radio signals to go all the way from voyager to earth and back. The generative arranger is realized with PD. Every time this piece gets performed or installed its length adapts automatically. The piece is structured according to significant events in the timeline of the Voyager 1 mission.

2. Six Presidents [9.21 min]

Six presidents (Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama) have been governing the US since Voyager 1 started its endless journey. This piece uses recordings of important speeches from all this US-presidents and contrasts them with a romantic medieval song about a young man who is leaving his home and never returns. The noisegate like chopping up of these speeches has been realised with time-stretching features of Ableton live.

3. Pale Blue Dot [9.09 min]

A very touching photo is the last image that Voyager had made and sent back to earth. It is called the „pale blue dot“ and shows our planet from a distance of more than 6 billion kilometers distance – a tiny dot (0.12 pixel in size) against the vastness of. The image is the inspiration of this piece which uses the sounds that I created based on the diagrams and data from Voyager 1.

4. Termination Shock [12.57 min]

Looking at the images that NASA created to explain the approach of the border region of our solar system,  it looks a bit as if the probe would be riding like a surfer on this Termination Shock. That’s what inspired this last piece.

short remarks about the genesis of this project:

On Nov. 5th 2012 I came by chance across a live stream from CERN where some astro-scientist talked about Voyager 1 having reached the final border that separates our solar system from interstellar space.

He explained: „Scientists refer to this new region as a magnetic highway for charged particles because our sun’s magnetic field lines are connected to interstellar magnetic field lines. This connection allows lower-energy charged particles that originate from inside our heliosphere — or the bubble of charged particles the sun blows around itself — to zoom out and allows higher-energy particles from outside to stream in. Before entering this region, the charged particles bounced around in all directions, as if trapped on local roads inside the heliosphere.“

Imagining that this space probe has been traveling already for so many years in absolute solitude through the vast almost empty outer space, transmitting every collected data back home and just once in a while getting new instructions, I couldn’t avoid some romantic road movie like clichés coming into mind. (the radio signal from Voyager to earth and back takes meanwhile about 34 hours) Actually it travels with an enormous speed (61.380 km/h)  but than again considering the gigantic dimensions of our galaxy or even the whole universe it immediately reminds me about the book of Paul Virilio „rasender Stillstand“. A furious standstill, an elegant contradiction that i tried to formulate in the music of this project.

I was also very captured by the actual simplicity of Voyager’s instruments and measurements,  and the breathtaking scientific expertise it needs to make so much sense out of so less data. Meanwhile only 3 out of 11 instruments are still active and yet it is enough to deliver this interesting material about the very borders of our solar system.

So when I tried to understand something of the diagrams and data sheets that came along with the lecture, I decided to use them as direct material for the compositional structures of this piece. Here are some examples of how I used the data of Voyager 1 in the four pieces.

  • the duration of the pieces as well as their inner temporal structures of sound events throughout the piece are derived from significant events throughout the entire mission of the voyager 1 probe
  • sound characteristics ie waveforms, filtercurves, amplitude-envelopes are created from diagrams and datasheets
  • tonal and harmonically structures are taken from measurements of particle flow
  • the trajectory curves of Voyagers close flyby of Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Titan have been imitated with Doppler Effect filters and panorama moves:

In particular I was focusing on the data since 2004 when Voyager 1 crossed a point in space called the termination shock, the spacecraft has been exploring the heliosphere’s outer layer, called the heliosheath.

Here are some diagrams I translated into parameters for the sound generation as well as the temporal and harmonically structures of the four pieces that make up the project Magnetic Highway

I like this one because for this measurements the whole Voyager probe is physically rolling along its axis to change the orientation of its instruments that are detecting the flow and intensity of particle streams. So it is a good model for organizing time, space and density of the macro structure of the pieces. The diagram in the upper right corner was used to model curves for FFT filter as well as for amplitude envelopes.

voyager fft curves 1 the orientation diagrams on the left side were translated  into parameters for filtered stereo delay lines of Ableton live. delay lines

The next diagram has been used as a model to organize clusters of note-on events (pitch, time, duration) for Midi sequencers, therefore organizing the micro structures of the pieces.

Comparison of radial and azimuthal components of heliosheath plasma flow velocity at Voyager[thinsp]2.

Trajectories and flight path are imitated with Doppler- and panorama effects

8doppler bahnen

Here are some more dates and numbers that I used to organize various aspects of the pieces like:

  • 05.09.1977 – launch date
  • 05.03.1979 – closest approach to Jupiter
  • 22.08.1980 – start of Saturn observation phase
  • 14.02.1990 – last Voyager Images – Portrait of the Solar System
  • 17.02.1998 – Voyager 1 passes Pioneer 10 to become the most distant human-made object in space
  • 15.12.2004 – Voyager 1 crosses Termination Shock
  • 722 kg – weight of the probe 
  • – distance to earth (constantly increasing)
  • 17050 km/s – speed in relation to sun 
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