Music emitted from Comet 67P sounds an awful lot like 20th-century harpsichord masterpiece

14 November 2014, 12:03

By Tim Edwards

Comet 67P, currently the home of the European space probe Philae, is singing, according to scientists - and it really sounds like Ligeti.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, to give it its full name, is a rubber duck-shaped celestial body more than four billion years old. Earlier this week, a European Space Agency probe called Philae ended its aeons of isolation by making a historic, if slightly awkward, landing. The probe initially bounced 1km into space before coming to rest on two of its three legs. So not at all like this:

Philae lands on Make A Gif

The mission has already contributed greatly to our understanding of comets – and one discovery is of great interest to music lovers: scientists have revealed that the comet has been singing for four billion years. John Cage's 640-year-long Organ²/ASLSP doesn't come close. 

So, how does a comet vocalise? Oscillations in the magnetic field of Comet 67P are creating a sound at a wavelength of around 40-50 millihertz, far below the range of human hearing. ESA scientists have increased the frequency by a factor of 10,000 in order to hear the song.

Karl-Heinz Glaßmeier, head of Space Physics and Space Sensorics at the Technische Universität Braunschweig, Germany, says they are still trying to work out what is happening, but adds: "This is exciting because it is completely new to us."

That’s interesting, because after playing it in Classic FM towers, it didn't sound particularly new to us. Have a listen to the comet below – and then listen to Continuum for Harpsichord by 20th-century Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti. In fact, why not go ahead and play both at the same time?

Comet 67P

Gyorgy Ligeti's Continuum for Harpsichord

Meanwhile, Philae, one leg in the air, is putting its lasers to good use, and having a disco up on Comet 67P.

Philae disco on Make A Gif

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