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What does outer space sound like? Hear NASA's satellite symphony at the Huntington

What does outer space sound like? Hear NASA's satellite symphony at the Huntington
The NASA Orbit Pavilion is a collaboration between the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, sound artist Shane Myrbeck and the architecture firm StudioKCA; it's now on view at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

It could be the start of a Steven Spielberg sci-fi film: A boy walks into a shimmering, aluminum garden pavilion surrounded by lush palms and succulent-lined footpaths. A lizard scurries across the dirt floor and over his sneaker-clad toes. There's a massive crater in the ceiling, open to the blue sky, and the boy cranes his neck backward to gaze at the heavens as puffy white clouds sail past.

Then, suddenly, the moaning begins.

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At first it's low and steady, then intercut with creaking, thunder and higher pitched whining.

NASA's 19 earth science satellites, which are quietly circling the planet, seem to be communicating with visitors of the pavilion, their combined "voices" creating a cacophonous concert that now echoes inside the domed chamber.

This is the West Coast debut of NASA Orbit Pavilion, on view at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino through Feb. 27. The structure, in the shape of a giant seashell, houses a sound installation that tracks the movement of the International Space Station and NASA's satellites as they make 90-minute trips around the Earth.

The pavilion was designed by New York architecture firm StudioKCA; the interior sonic installation is a collaboration between sound artist Shane Myrbeck and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory visual strategists David Delgado and Dan Goods.

"When you look up into the sky, you typically can't see anything but clouds or the night sky," Delgado says, "but there are things that exist beyond our range of perception, and satellites orbiting the Earth are one of them. You can't see them, and you can't hear them, but they're there, and they're doing a lot to help us understand how the Earth works. We wanted to help people connect with that through sound."

Inside the NASA Orbit Pavilion.
Inside the NASA Orbit Pavilion. (NASA / Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

Working with a computer program, Myrbeck created a signature sound for each of the satellites, which have names like EO1 and Aura — thunder for one, waves for another, wind, a frog croaking, even a human voice. As the satellites sail through space, their individual sounds become audible inside the pavilion as they pass over the range of the horizon above the Huntington. The sounds are amplified inside the laser-cut aluminum pavilion, which is embedded with 28 speakers.

Myrbeck created two tracks, or "acts" as he refers to them, for the project. One emits the individual satellite voices in real time, as they pass overhead; the other compresses 24 hours of sound into one minute. The effect, as their sounds unfurl together, is an eerily soothing symphony from outer space.

NASA Orbit Pavilion debuted at New York's 2015 World Science Festival. It's the inaugural project of the Huntington's Five program, in which the Huntington will collaborate with another institution for a year, across five years, to create art installations relating to subjects in the Huntington collections. The Orbit Pavilion connects to the Huntington Library's history of science collection, which includes manuscripts and rare books about astronomy and aerospace, among other topics.

That the Orbit Pavilion is in the shape of a seashell is no accident. It's a whimsical suggestion that you could put your ear to a conch shell and listen to the rhythms of outer space instead of the sea.

The project is also meant to humanize the distant NASA satellites, Delgado says.

"When you provide the sounds for space, it just feels real," he says. "We wanted to give the satellites a voice, so that when they pass overhead, basically, they could reach out and say hi to us."

Follow me on Twitter: @debvankin

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