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The sights and sounds of space

NASA / JPL-Caltech / UA / IA-Cambridge / SINGS team
The Fireworks Galaxy, also known as NGC 6946, blazes in an infrared image
captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. This image has been reoriented to
maximize the view. Click on it to see even larger versions from the Spitzer team.

Have you ever heard an aurora? Or a black hole? Have you ever filled your screen with the fireworks of the final frontier? Help yourself to the biggest pictures and the coolest sounds from space.

Where to begin? This week, the scientists behind NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope put out a new view of the Fireworks Galaxy, a dazzling spiral about 17 million light-years away in the constellation Cepheus.

The Fireworks Galaxy isn't being featured just because it's getting close to the Fourth of July: Astronomers took a close look at the scene to figure out whether a supernova first spotted earlier this year was really a supernova after all. Their conclusion, slated for publication in the July 1 issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters, was that the outburst may have been a new type of explosion for dusty, massive stars.

For a different kind of celestial crack-up, check out the Gemini Observatory's picture of a collision between two nearly identical spiral galaxies in the constellation Virgo, 90 million light-years from Earth. Astronomers have charted the gravitational interaction between NGC 5426 and NGC 5427, and say the galactic dance may serve as a preview of our own Milky Way galaxy's encounter with the neighboring Andromeda Galaxy billions of years from now.

Such collisions are thought to end up creating fuzzy elliptical galaxies - and that fuzzy prediction goes for the NGC 5426-27 pairing as well as the future "Milkomeda" crash.

In space, no one can hear a galaxy crash. But here on Earth, astronomers can turn cosmic emanations into alien-sounding audio. The latest example is the European Space Agency's rendition of Earth's chirping aurora. The ESA's Cluster satellite constellation recorded radio emissions from the aurora, and astronomers translated those readings into an audio track that sounds like birds twittering.

Astronomers have used similar wavelength-translation tricks to produce spooky audio from electric field noise around Saturn, radio waves detected near Jupiter, radar pings from meteor showers and even X-ray emissions from a black hole.

For more elegant sights and sounds, you should check out the GLAST Prelude for Brass Quintet, Op. 12. The piece was composed by Nolan Gasser to mark this month's launch of NASA's Gamma-Ray Large Area Space Telescope (a.k.a. GLAST) - and will serve as the prelude for a large-scale multimedia symphony titled "Cosmic Reflections."

"Cosmic Reflections" will use music, narration and film to trace the entire 13.7 billion-year history of the universe, and celebrate GLAST's role in unraveling that history. The tone poem is due for its premiere at Washington's Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in the fall of 2009, according to the composer's Web site.

Some of the world's best cosmic compositions can be found in our own Space Gallery, which currently features the latest installment of our "Month in Space" slide show. Every time we put out a fresh batch of pictures, some folks want to know where they can get bigger versions of the images for their photo-quality printouts and computer desktops. With that in mind, we offer these links to more information and bigger digital files: