updated 10/27/2010 11:47:56 AM ET 2010-10-27T15:47:56

The stars are ringing like the strings of mandolins, guitars and bass fiddles say astronomers studying the unprecedented reams of data on thousands of stars pouring in from the new Kepler spacecraft.

The themes of all that celestial music are familiar enough: loneliness, glory days and the passage of close friends (translated into astronomese: distance, age and exoplanets).

Take the loud, low crooning of those bluesy red giant stars.

"Kepler is literally listening to thousands of red giant musicians in the sky," said Daniel Huber a graduate researcher in astronomy at the University of Sydney, Australia. Huber spoke at a Tuesday press teleconference by the Kepler Asteroseismic Science Consortium at Aarhus University in Denmark.

Red giants are stars entering the late stages of their lives, when they begin to run out of fuel and start swelling.

The music from red giants and other stars is created by the regular oscillations in their light -- something Kepler can detect and monitor. These oscillations can be converted into sound waves which are not unlike those of stringed instruments.

"You can consider this stellar sound," said Huber. "A red giant concert."

The new Kepler data show that as red giants swell, their oscillations grow less frequent, but stronger -- sort of like what would happen if a mandolin were magically puffed up into a bass fiddle and played louder.

But this is no cry-in-your-beer, somebody-done-somebody-wrong-song astro-picking. These stellar oscillations are created by seismic waves bouncing around the innards of stars -- literally "star quakes" -- and so they reveal a lot about the interior workings of the stars in the same way earthquakes reveal the structure of the Earth.

That, in turn, says a lot about a star's size and age.

"We can use these oscillation periods to study the cores of stars," said Hans Kjeldsen, of Aarhus University in Denmark. "In a way, we use this to touch the stars."

This technique works for any star bright enough for its oscillations to be detected by Kepler. It's also a great way to gauge a star's size.

Once you know how big a star is, you can better hone in on its distance -- in the same way you can judge the distance to a flashlight far more easily if you know whether it's a hefty, five-battery model or a tiny one-cell penlight.

And once you're this cozy and well acquainted with a star, you can even ask its age and assign that same age to any exoplanet that might have been born alongside the star, explained Travis Metcalfe, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

Ultimately, of course, there is a selfish reason for tuning into the galactic jam session.

"One motivation is to learn about the past and future of our own learn if our star is peculiar," said Metcalfe. "Before Kepler we had very little information on a handful of stars. Now we have one month of data on each of a couple of thousands of stars."

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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