Blind Experiencing Space

With the flight and landing of space shuttle Discovery more people are renewing an interest in the space program. But one segment of the population isn't able to have the same kind of understanding of the thrills of space travel. There is an effort underway in Houston to help blind and visually impaired people experience the beauty of space.

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One of the most striking results of Discovery's flight was the pictures received from space. Cameras mounted on the shuttle and on astronauts' space suits delivered amazing images and views from orbit. But the wonder of space is difficult to convey to those who can't see. Dr. Patricia Reiff is the director of the Rice Space Institute at Rice University. She is heading up an effort to convert data from space into sound. Right now the information comes from four unmanned space craft which fly in tight formation and measure things like magnetic flares. The numbers come back and scientists plot them on a graph which ends up looking like a squiggly line on an axis.

It's an opportunity to share the science with people who don't get much out of looking at pretty pictures, but who are very good at interpreting sounds and the three dimensional structures of where sounds are coming from and the tonality of those sounds. Through a digital program, each spacecraft's data are assigned a different pitch. So this is what a solar storm sounds like when converted to audio.

And in this case, numbers collected from each spacecraft were correlated to a different musical instrument to demonstrate the sound of a magnetic field.

The sound files will be used by the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. They're planning on creating a website with the sounds collected into one place. The information may be used in some science classes and other programs around the country are looking at this project as an example of how to make certain kinds of scientific data more accessable to the disabled. Jim Allen with the School for the Blind says converting these numbers into sound helps everyone, not just people who can't see.

It'll still be several years before the sound files are archived for the students, but in the meantime more sounds are being collected providing a more comprehensive audio tour of outer space.

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