As Sun Flares Up, Sky Watchers Check Microphones

Sounds From Space

Explore more of Thomas Ashcraft’s recordings at his Web site:

The sun is emerging from a two-year period of quiet, and that's good news to amateur radio astronomers like Thomas Ashcraft. He records the sounds of solar flares and other cosmic phenomena from his home observatory in Santa Fe, N.M. Ashcraft tells Guy Raz about this "exciting time" for sun watchers and about his elaborate backyard recording studio.

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(Soundbite of static)

GUY RAZ, host:

Do not adjust your radio. This isn't just static, it's the sound of a solar flare. Maybe you haven't noticed, but the sun's been a bit quiet over the past couple of years. It was experiencing something called solar minimum. It's a period when sun spots and solar flares are rare.

But within the past week, the sun appears to be emerging from its slumber, which is good news for people like Thomas Ashcraft.

Thomas is an artist and an amateur radio astronomer, and for the past 20 years, he's been listening to the skies, making and sharing recordings from his home observatory in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Thomas Ashcraft, welcome to the program.

Mr. THOMAS ASHCRAFT (Artist, Amateur Radio Astronomer): Happy to be here.

RAZ: First of all, describe what a radio astronomer is.

Mr. ASHCRAFT: A radio astronomer studies the sky at radio frequencies rather than optical frequencies. So, the optical sky, the visual sky, is just a very small slice of the full electromagnetic spectrum. So, there's much more to see and study in radio astronomy than there is in mere visual optical astronomy.

RAZ: Because normally we think of, you know, the sort of photographs from the Hubble Telescope, these incredible dramatic photos of far away galaxies and stars and planets. You aren't actually always looking at things; you are listening to things.

Mr. ASHCRAFT: Yeah, listening, that's my forte - is listening and recording. And actually, most radio astronomers don't listen to sound. They see the radio input on spectrographs or charts. So, to me, if you tune into radio astronomy spectrographs, they can be extremely beautiful, just as beautiful as Hubble images.

RAZ: So, what have you been hearing this past week?

Mr. ASHCRAFT: Well, the past week's been incredibly special. As you mentioned, we're coming out of a very long and almost a weird sunspot minimum. But in the past week, a few active regions appeared on the sun. And one region grew incredibly fast, like in a manner of two to three days and started flaring ferociously.

RAZ: I'm listening to this and I'm wondering when do you actually get sleep because it sounds like it's been very, very active.

Mr. ASHCRAFT: Well, it's kind of nice not to get sleep. I mean, I get sleep but I tend to get up quite early before the sun so I could meet it. So, it's as exciting time. I was a little bit flat before this.

RAZ: Now, Thomas Ashcraft, I should mention that there's an article about you at wired.com. And in that article there's a photograph of your backyard, and it's this sort of network of wires that are strung through the trees. Can you describe what that setup is and how you actually record the sound of space and of the sun?

Mr. ASHCRAFT: Those are dipole antennas. So, those wires that you can see are then coming into my observatory into a series of short-wave radios. And actually, I'm using old-fashioned VCRs as my audio recorders because they make an eight-hour-long tape and...

RAZ: Oh, yeah.

Mr. ASHCRAFT: ...I don't have to attend to them. So, I have an incredibly simple radio astronomy observatory built out of simple wires, castoff short-wave radios, old VCRs that they don't even take at the Salvation Army any more, I don't think.

RAZ: You actually use your observatory to make recordings of other phenomena:

(Soundbite of recording)

RAZ: Okay. To me, that sounds like being on the ride Space Mountain at Disneyworld.

Mr. ASHCRAFT: Okay.

RAZ: What is that sound.

Mr. ASHCRAFT: Well, that sound is - now, we're switching phenomena into meteor and space dust. So, what happens is when a meteor hits the ionosphere, it makes a trail of ionization. That trail or that cone of ionization has a capacity to reflect in a far-off TV or radio transmitter. So, what that was was the reflections of distant video carriers of TV transmitters.

RAZ: You've got to be very careful because I suspect that DJs will start to sample your sounds.

Mr. ASHCRAFT: I think that that's all right. I know that people find it musical.

RAZ: You can dance to some of it.

Mr. ASHCRAFT: Well, I do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: That's Thomas Ashcraft. He's an amateur radio astronomer in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Thomas Ashcraft, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. ASHCRAFT: Well, you're very welcome. Thank you kindly.

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