02/21/2013 09:22 pm ET | Updated Apr 24, 2013

An Audible Tour of the Solar System? Sign Me Up!

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

I've often wondered what it would sound like to be walking around on another world. It turns out, there's a few places not far from home where it might be possible to find out in the not-too-distant future.

Sound is produced by pressure changes (waves) in the atmosphere that can be sensed by our eardrums. So right off the bat we have to rule out a whole slew of airless planets -- like Mercury -- and other moons, asteroids, and comets where we wouldn't be able to hear anything. The Apollo astronauts who went to our Moon, for example, could only hear their own breathing inside their helmets.

But there are some planets with atmospheres where sounds could be heard. None of these places are just like the Earth, though, and so we shouldn't necessarily expect the sounds of those worlds to be like ours either.

Our neighbor Venus, for example, has a thick carbon dioxide atmosphere that can transmit sound waves -- but the crushing pressure (equivalent to 3,000 feet under the sea) and temperature (hot enough to melt lead) would almost instantly kill anyone who tried to go there. I guess I'm just not that interested in hearing what my screams of painful death sound like on Venus.

What might I hear through my space suit helmet? The crack of Jovian lightning followed by the most enormous roll of thunder ever? The roaring sounds of wind going more than 1,000 miles per hour in a cyclone on Saturn?-- Jim Bell

Our other neighbor Mars offers more hope, however. Its thin and cold carbon dioxide atmosphere can transmit sound waves, and if I went there in a properly-outfitted space suit I could remain safe and still able to hear sounds around me. I could potentially hear the sounds of my space boots crunching rocks and soil, or dry ice, under my feet. I could hear the mechanical gears and wheel sounds of my Mars rover, taking me from place to place for some geologic field work. And Mars itself probably makes audible sounds, too. Sand dunes on Earth have been known to boom or bark as they slowly creep across the landscape, for example--do the sands of Mars cry out as they move? Does the wind howl during a dust storm? What other sounds might the environment there make? No one yet knows. Groups like The Planetary Society have been trying to send microphones to Mars for years to find out, but none have yet been successful. I hope they (we) keep trying.

There are even more exotic places that we might be able to listen to. If I could conjure up the money and technology for the right kind of balloon, I could float within the cloud layers of any of the giant planets at pressure levels that would not crush and fry me but still have enough atmosphere to transmit sounds. What might I hear through my space suit helmet? The crack of Jovian lightning followed by the most enormous roll of thunder ever? The roaring sounds of wind going more than 1,000 miles per hour in a cyclone on Saturn?

It could get even weirder. If I went to the right places on Saturn's giant moon Titan and had a really good heated space suit I might hear the sounds of babbling brooks or thundering waterfalls through my helmet. Except they wouldn't be "water" falls they'd be "methane" falls or "ethane" falls. Titan is a strange world where the atmospheric pressure is about 50 percent more than Earth's and the temperature is only about 90 degrees above absolute zero. So instead of having rivers, lakes, and seas of water, Titan is a liquid hydrocarbon world, where the propane flows freely, carving the "rock" of low temperature water ice like liquid water carves silicate rock on our home planet. I would like to hear that.

There's one more place out there I'd like to listen to, but this time I'd need a properly-outfitted submarine. One of the large moons of Jupiter -- Europa -- appears to have a deep ocean of liquid water under its icy crust. I couldn't hear anything when I land on Europa because it's an airless moon, but once I burrow through the ice and launch my sub into those ocean depths, who knows what sounds I might hear transmitted through the water? The rumbling of warm currents of water splashing against cracking sea ice? The gurgling and bubbling sounds of sea floor black smoker chimneys where superheated geothermal water erupts into the cooler ocean? The occasional high-pitched song of some exotic, alien Europan sea monster? Who wouldn't be astounded by that!?

There are enough audible places out there among nearby worlds, in fact, that someone clever and entrepreneurial really should get on the case and start a sign-up list for an "Audible Tour of the Solar System". It would be the ultimate in adventure tourism for the aurally inclined, a far-flung feast for the ears, and I can imagine that it could even be easily translatable into some sort of tactile experience for the hearing impaired. Maybe it's a crazy idea today, but I bet it will happen eventually. In fact, if I close my eyes I can already hear the dappling of sand on my visor and the gentle whispering of the wind as a Martian dust devil passes right over our group. What a thrill!


Jim Bell is an astronomer and planetary scientist at Arizona State University and is the President of The Planetary Society. Jim is an occasional science blogger for the Huffington Post, and his books like "Postcards from Mars", "Moon 3-D", and "The Space Book" have helped to enable glorious visual tours of the solar system since 2006.

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