The real dark side of the moon

In the wake of NASA’s declassification of the music heard on the dark side of the moon in 1969, Errol Kerr investigates if Pink Floyd really is to blame for the mysterious melody

9th March 2016

Back in May 1969, Apollo 10 – the fourth manned Apollo mission and the first manned mission to orbit the moon - was conducted to field-test all available technology for the subsequent lunar landing, which would occur two months later by Apollo 11. The Apollo spacecraft completed several revolutions of the moon in the eight days it spent in low Earth orbit. In 2008, information was released that reported that at one point during these revolutions, astronauts Gene Cernan and John Young heard an unexpected noise through their headsets - a medium-pitched whistling - whilst on the dark side of the moon. As of recently, a recording has been released of said astronauts conversing about the noise, confirming the reports and rumours. NASA denies that the recordings were made public in ’73. The truth of this is unknown and will likely be disputed entirely.

The sheer size and volume of the moon made - and still makes – many transmissions from Earth to the shuttle completely impossible to send and receive, therefore radio silence is to be expected from us - however EM storms from deep space cause the usual static. Therefore, a noise occurring which definitely shouldn’t have is kind of a big deal.

"Could it have been the interstellar equivalent of the calling of a whale in the ocean?"

On the recently released recording, the astronauts can be heard saying ‘you hear that? That whistling sound? “whoooooo…”’ and is described as “space music”.

The sound made by Cernan isn’t exactly very tuneful - it’s not something I’d go out of my way to classify as music, however the noise cutting through their headsets is clearly not the static that’s to be expected from deep space radiation.

But what exactly was it, and if it’s important, was it even remotely significant? Was it simply an inexplicable blip of electromagnetic waves from a distant solar storm? Interference of this sort could have fried the headsets temporarily or messed with the communications systems of the shuttle. During re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, ionised air would shut off communications completely, which was a completely normal occurrence from the Mercury shuttles up to the end of the Apollo project, so perhaps something similar could have occurred with radiation interference, just a bit further out?

"The sheer size and volume of the moon makes many transmissions from Earth to the shuttle completely impossible"

Could it have been the interstellar equivalent of the calling of a whale in the ocean? A noise made by something else out there? I’m sure a lot of you people would appreciate this outcome.

Was it simply a glitch in the radio technology on the spacecraft? Whilst the Apollo craft wasn’t of poor construction at all, each was designed slightly differently and there could have been certain things crossing frequency pathways – the Apollo radio systems had a tendency to interfere with one another across the voice, telemetric, and biomedical systems, as well as being the first mission to carry and utilise the lunar module as well which could have led to this - and Apollo 13’s re-entry was famously longer than expected. Could it have simply been a technical fault?

Whilst the former and latter are the most likely - 1969 was one giant leap for mankind’s endeavours into space exploration (see what I did there? #NeilArmstrongBants) but we didn’t have as full a knowledge of space as we do now. If we had experienced the same thing today, we may be able to identify it - however we haven’t done so. Being literally the biggest nerd in existence (see also: gaming section), I’d love it to be attempted contact from extraterrestrial life. If it was, however unlikely, I’d be both exhilarated and terrified. Why would something like that only contact us once, and make no contact from 1969 until now?

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