LAS VEGAS (FOX5) -- A professor at UNLV is presenting data obtained from a NASA space mission in the form of music.
"I guess I was always interested in astronomy to a certain extent,” UNLV astrophysicist Dr. Jason Steffen said. “But I never thought I'd actually be an astronomer."
Before becoming a professor at UNLV, Steffen worked with NASA on the Kepler mission.
"So the Kepler mission was a satellite that was designed to detect planets orbiting other stars,” Steffen said. “It would do it by watching the brightness of the stars. When a distant planet passes in front of the star, it would block part of the light and the star would get dimmer. The equivalent in terms of sensitivity would be like looking at Las Vegas from space and watching a fly circulate around a street light."
Steffen’s objective was to compare data from Kepler to what we understood about our own solar system.
"In the solar system, where the planets are located and how their orbits relate to each other tells us about the history of the solar system -- where they formed and how they might have moved around a little bit."
Steffen honed in on the orbits of Neptune and Pluto.
"So Neptune orbits three times every time Pluto orbits twice. Neptune moved outwards in the solar system and captured Pluto into that orbit. Then it got stuck in that orbit and has been stuck in that orbit for billions of years."
Steffen said that 3-2 ratio has significance in music.
"Those orbital configurations actually correspond to musical intervals that you would have on a musical instrument like the piano or the guitar. I took the Kepler data and built musical cords out of it. We were looking at similar effects in those planetary systems."
Many of the exoplanet pairings sound like a toddler banging on the piano.
"And then occasionally, one will jump out as being, oh, that's really kind of pleasant, that little sequence there."
Steffen said if it sounds like a pleasant note to the human ear there’s a strong chance the corresponding planets influenced each other’s orbits.
"I teach physics classes where we talk about how musical instruments work,” said Steffen. “So pipe organs and trumpets and guitars and things like that. And so this gives them an example of how you can take the knowledge of musical instruments and map it onto scientific data."