The Sounds of Saturn and Other Space Oddities

My friend and neighbor Robert, a former NASA engineer with a super-powerful 1961 Questar telescope (140x) in his backyard, showed me Saturn the other night -- a tiny circle with a tiny ring around it, so distant (900 million miles from Earth) that the Saturn we saw at 9 p.m. was really what Saturn looked like at 7:30. (That would be at its farthest distance from Earth -- average would be about 70 minutes).

Robert's Saturn sighting was my favorite bit of stargazing since Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars touched down at Carnegie Hall in 1972. And it got me thinking about the connection between space and music.

Mr. Stardust, of course, was an undocumented alien who had taken on the persona of "David Bowie" 25 years earlier. In 1969, shortly after Neil Armstrong became the first undocumented alien to walk on the moon, Ziggy launched his song "Space Oddity," an ominous take on space travel that became a planet-wide smash and spawned a pioneering, otherworldly video.

NASA scientists added a bit of universal music to the music of the universe in 2008 when they transmitted The Beatles' (really, John Lennon's) heavenly "Across the Universe" into deep space from the largest antenna in the world. Gold albums are attached to the two Voyager Spacecraft, which may someday blare the "Sounds of Earth" from an alien world's turntable. The big bang of rock & roll was represented by Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode." Perhaps Chuck was musing on the music of the solar system when he wrote, "Many people coming from miles around/To hear you play your music when the sun go down."

The Cassini-Huygens, a robotic spacecraft, has been studying Saturn since 1997. It began to run rings around the ringed planet in 2004 and its "ESA Huygens" probe reached Titan, Saturn's largest moon, the following year. The Titan sojourn had its own original soundtrack -- the specially commissioned tunes, "Hot Time," "Bald James Deans," "Lalala" and "No Love." Will creatures from other galaxies conjure an Earth populated by hairless pop stars looking for love in all the 'flight spaces'? Only "hot time" -- and we could be talking millions of years -- will tell.

The stars have inspired countless other musical stars, from Haydn to Hindemith, from Moby to Coltrane, from Grateful Dead to The Byrds. This list merely scratches the surface.

Some composers have sought to harness the Harmony of the Spheres more directly. John Cage created "Atlas Eclipticalis" in 1962 by putting notes on pages of a star atlas and letting the arrangement of the stars determine the pattern of the notes. A few months ago, Angelenos were treated to the Los Angeles premiere of Gérard Grisey's "Le Noir de l'Etoile (The Black of the Star)," a near-legendary piece in which, according to the show's sponsors Monday Evening Concerts, "Six percussionists play pulsing rhythms at different speeds on different instruments ...Signaling to each other, signaling to us, they are also preparing for the arrival of rhythms from outer space: the pulsations of rapidly rotating neutron stars known as 'pulsars.'"

Earlier this year, astronaut Chris Hadfield jammed with the space/music continuum during his five-month stay on the International Space Station. Hadfield filmed himself floating through the zero-gravity environment while warbling "Space Oddity" to the accompaniment of his acoustic guitar. The spaced-out video became an Internet sensation with 10 million views in its first three days, the cosmic equivalent of "Video Killed the Radio Star." Ziggy himself, still masquerading as David Bowie after all these years, tweeted: "Chris Hadfield sings 'Space Oddity' in space! Hallo Spaceboy..."

While Robert and I were staring at Saturn, the ringed planet was, in a sense, staring back at us. These new images taken from the Cassini probe show the Earth as a tiny blue dot beneath Saturn's massive yellowish rings.

If you're a space/music enthusiast and there's no Questar telescope in your neighbor's backyard, you can listen here to the melodies of Saturn's rings, a very special kind of ring-tone.