SOUNDS OF SPACE: Isle of Skye harpist answers NASA call

Ciorstaidh Beaton, from Kilmuir

A Skye harpist has collaborated with NASA, playing her instrument on a pioneering new space project.

The citizen science programme, named ‘HARP’, is designed to better understand solar winds and their effect on planet Earth. 

When the space agency contacted Ciorstaidh Beaton, a harpist and music teacher from Kilmuir, she jumped at the opportunity. 

She said: “I was approached at the beginning of April by Emmanuel Masongsong – a Los Angeles based space scientist and composer/musician – via my music page on Facebook.

“He was looking for a ‘real life harpist’ for the launch of his new space science project. On first reading of his message I genuinely thought it was spam.

“But Emmanuel had previously visited Skye and happened to meet members of my family during his stay. Thankfully, they confirmed he was a human being!”

​​HARP, which stands for ‘Heliophysics Audified: Resonances in Plasmas’, is a new collaboration between NASA and the University of California (UCLA) which trains citizen scientists to identify the sounds of space, created by solar winds and other ‘space weather’.

Learn more and watch and listen out for Ciorstaidh

As part of the project lead Emmanuel Masongsong has the job of explaining to those who know less about outer space, that planet Earth is surrounded by its own ‘HARP’. 

Ciorstaidh added: “Emmanuel requested I film a short clip ‘emulating satellite sounds’ in the form of a glissando, which is when you slide your finger from one string to another, often across multiple strings.

“In this case I was asked for the full range of the concert harp (47 strings!) which represents the satellite travelling vast distances through space.”

The real sounds created in space, collected by a satellite, are not audible to us. The scientists involved translated them for humans to understand because the human ear is better at picking up patterns than their computers.

Since joining the project, Ciorstaidh told us she had learned a lot about space and encouraged others to get involved where they can.

She said: “Sound is a huge part of our daily lives, musical or otherwise.

“Learning about the pitch of the sound of a satellite travelling at varying distances through space in a musical context is pretty cool.

“Space weather, plasmas…listening to sounds that are literally from another world! I encourage everybody to check out the websites and get involved.

“There’s lots to hear and learn and it’s even given me new ideas for my own musical writing.

“But the best part was learning that planet Earth is surrounded by a ‘HARP’ of its own!” 

As a citizen science project, ordinary people are actively encouraged to get involved and help the scientists unpick more than a decade worth of data. You can get involved by visiting the ‘HARP’ website.