As vast and empty as it is, the universe is actually full of radio signals. Not necessarily the ones we tend to think of when we hear the word “radio,” but radio waves nonetheless. Radio waves are a type of electromagnetic radiation similar to light or X-rays, but just with a much longer wavelength. Radio waves can be generated from a variety of naturally occurring sources out in space, making them one more way for us to understand our mysterious universe.
Still, these deep space radio waves offer a fascinating glimpse into our solar system and beyond. Just this week, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory released a series of audio recordings generated from radio waves beaming back and forth between Saturn and its moon Enceladus, a prime candidate for possible life in our solar system. The audio recordings are quite eerie and somewhat unsettling, sounding like something out of a David Lynch film soundtrack or like a slowed-down Brian Eno album.
In reality, the audio file was actually extremely sped up from 16 minutes to 28.5 seconds as the wavelengths of these radio waves are quite long. They’re not audible from anywhere in the airless vacuum of space nor from either Enceladus or Saturn; they have to be converted into audio by scientists the same way a radio receiver converts radio waves into Katy Perry here on Earth.
The University of Iowa’s Ali Sulaiman was one of the researchers who published a study of these radio waves. According to a JPL press release, Sulaiman says these radio waves are among the first known radio “duets” between a planet and one of its moons:
Enceladus is this little generator going around Saturn, and we know it is a continuous source of energy. Now we find that Saturn responds by launching signals in the form of plasma waves, through the circuit of magnetic field lines connecting it to Enceladus hundreds of thousands of miles away
Naturally occurring intergalactic radio waves previously made headlines throughout 2017 as several deep space sources were observed to send out powerful rapid fire bursts, leading to a flurry of speculation that these bursts might be an attempt at communication on behalf of an intelligent alien race.
However, further observations revealed these fast radio bursts are likely caused by an exotic type of neutron star with an “extreme magneto-ionic environment” or some other astronomical gobbledygook.
It’s never aliens.