Date: March 9, 2011

Title: Musical Monkey Satellite-ing


Podcaster: Sandy Antunes

Organization: Project Calliope LLC –

Description: Sandy from is joined by Matt and Hai-Ting of in the continuing saga of just why the heck someone is launching a musical satellite, and what can you do with an orbiting musical instrument?

Bio: Dr. Sandy brings you space science-y joy twice a week at, and is launching a personal science/music satellite at

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by — no one. We still need sponsors for many days in 2011, so please consider sponsoring a day or two. Just click on the “Donate” button on the lower left side of this webpage, or contact us at


[Sandy] This is Dr. Sandy Antunes with projectCalliope talking with the Scopes Monkey Choir podcasters, Matt & Hai-Ting. projectCalliope is one mad scientist building a satellite in his basement that will launch next year. It’s going to go up to the ionosphere for about 9 to 12 weeks and convert the edge of space into sound that any musican can reuse as royalty-free tracks, and anyone can listen to hear what space sounds like in terms of its activity and dynamicss. Because I often feel we don’t have a good sense of what space actually is.

[Matt] Um hm, and the fact that’s there’s actually a lot going on up there.

[Sandy] Right, it’s alternating periods of boredom and sudden activity.

[Matt] Uh huh.

[Sandy] And we have this wonderful thing called an atmosphere that protects us from all the nasty stuff out there, but it’s a very interesting environment. The ionosphere is where the auroras happen, and everyone’s visually seen the auroras, and like ‘ooh ah’, it’d be nice to tangibly connect that by hearing it in a musical fashion.

[Matt] Absolutely.

[Hai-Ting] Now, how much of that activity would be categorized as ‘sound’ if we could actually put a living ear up there?

[Sandy] Almost none of it, because there’s almost no air there, it’s near vacuum, there’s just a thin amount of material, which is what the solar plasma reacts with to cause it [auroras], but not enough that we could hear. So sonification is translating detectors into sound so we can pick it up. I actually got the idea from a sysadmin tool that someone used called ‘ping’ that takes the network traffice on a network and converts it to sound. So while the sysadmin is working in their office, they can hear the network in the background, and if they suddenly hear the music ramp up or rev up, they’re like woah, something’s happening to the network.

[Matt] Cool.

[Sandy] So I thought converting the ionosophere, so you would hear, like hearing the ocean, you would hear the steady sort of quiescent background, the occasional crash of waves, with mild activity, and if there’s suddenly a loud peak of sound, of music, of activity, you’re like, wow, that’s must be a solar event, that sort of thing becomes much more intuitivly noticed.

[Matt] Uh huh. So, then, my understanding of the ionosphere, which is extremely limited, but I do gather that there are events and such that are described as wavelengths, and frequencies, and things that can be sort of more or less directly translated into sound. Is that right?

[Sandy] Correct, all that we see, light going all the way going up to radio and x-rays and gamma rays, is the electromagnetic spectrum, that’s photons transfering energy. And what we call sound is physical vibration of molecules, carrying that vibration along until we feel it. So it’s translating from photons to sound, essentially.
[Hai-ting] What sort of sensors are you using to pick up the activity?

[Sandy] I’m using I-CubeX sensors from Infusion Systems in Canada, because they make sensors for performance artists and hobbyists. So when you see people doing movement being transmitted theramin-like into music, they’re often using I-CubeX-type sensors. These are small, portable, waterpoof, really durable sensors that automatically produce midi data, producing sheet music from it. So I thought they’d be ideal for space. And the Infusion Systems people have been giving me some good tech support, to get this to work out. They’re a lot of fun, since obviously they straddle the music/science/performance area that we all are working on here.

[Matt] So does that mean it’s actually going to be converted to sound files before it gets transmitted back to Earth?

[Sandy] Correct, anyone with a ham radio would be able to pick up the midi files being sent down, as digital packets, and hook into their computer and listen live to the midi tracks from it. And the nice thing about midi is, you can map it, you can say okay, let’s make the background magnetic field be mapped to heavy organ, and we’ll make the day/night sensors be mapped to snare drums– or whatever mapping you want, to come up with interesting things.

[Matt] Wow that’s very cool.

[Hai-Ting] So, one question, going back to the beginning, how is Calliope getting into space?
[Sandy] There’s a company called Interorbital. Interorbital announced they are going to send up what are called picosatellites, these little coke-can sized satellites, for $8000. And they’ll give you the plans, and that includes the launch. It’s about a factor of ten cheaper than any other way to get into space. And it really puts it down into amateur budgets. My joke is, as far as midlife crises go, i could buy a motorcycle or launch a satellite into space, and which one is cooler? [laughs]

[Hai-Ting] Well, obviously you’ve picked the cooler.

[Sandy] To me, to me. The funny thing is, when I talk to people about it, they’re like ‘satellite’, ‘satellite’, ‘satellite’… I feel sorry for the motorcycle manufacturers, but that’s life

[Matt] Yeah, well, time marches on. So, I wanted to go back to the data coming back to Earth. You mentioned that when it’s transmitting, anyone with a ham radio that knows the frequency will be able to hear it, or access it. But are you going to have an official collector of some sort that will be continually downloaing the data?

[Sandy] Most definitely, I’m going to be talking to my ham friends, basically try to get volunteers willing to monitor the satellite for its short many week life, give us the projectCalliope data as they gather it, then we’ll make a central web repository for it. And that ties in with, I’m still looking for a partner on the music end, someone that can help me connect with the musician communities and get this out to people that can then use it and remix it into interesting stuff. I’m going to go with the obvious thought that I need someone that’s involved in the musician community. I’m sort of very on the edge of that sort of thing, and I’ve talked with a few composers that are interested in it. But I don’t believe in ‘if you build it, they will come’, I believe that if you build it, you should then tell people who are intertested about it so they can take it and walk away with it. So I’d love to meet people that are in the remix community, or the peer to peer community, or the producing community, or a music portal, or are otherwise already engaging musicians and are part of that dialog, so that they can bring it there. And I also think that gives it better authenticity because they’ll be able to better state whether its good or useable, whether it’s something that they say ‘well, this is just a novelty’ or something like ‘wow, you could come up with something neat’. I’d like to have that rational/critical evaluation, from someone who is more into music than just me as an amateur music geek. The analogy i give is that I’m a luthier building a musical instrument in space, and I want musicians to be able to use it.
[Hai-Ting] What is your ideal dream for this material, what would you love to have happen to it?

[Sandy] I would like T. Pain to decide to give up AutoTune and go entirely with Callope tracks because he finds them cooler.

[Hai-Ting] We would like that too.

[Sandy] This is Dr. Sandy Antunes at with the Scopes Monkey Choir podcasters, Matt & Hai-Ting

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the Astrosphere New Media Association. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at or email us at Until tomorrow…goodbye.