Microsoft took the wraps off its much-anticipated WorldWide Telescope program today. This rich web application merges imagery from the world’s best ground- and space-based observatories into a detailed desktop cosmos. The platform also gives scientists and educators a tool for teaching astronomy and the process of scientific discovery.
With WorldWide Telescope, users pan left, right, up, down, back, and forward seamlessly — down to the full resolution of the available data. Users can view the stars and planets at any time and date from any point on Earth, explore the sky in dozens of different wavelengths, zoom into images by the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, or see Mars from the Opportunity rover’s point of view.
“Users can see the X-ray view of the sky, zoom into bright radiation clouds and then cross fade into the visible light view and discover the cloud remnants of a supernova explosion from a thousand years ago,” says Roy Gould, a researcher at the Harvard Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I believe this new creation from Microsoft will have a profound impact on the way we view the universe.”
WorldWide Telescope “unleashes the power of a game engine on astronomy,” says Johns Hopkins University astronomer Alex Szalay.
Users can control their own experience or download guided tours highlighting specific astronomical objects. Tours can include narration, music, text, and graphics that create compelling, interactive learning experiences. Users can create and share their own tours as part of the program’s communities feature.
“With WorldWide Telescope,” says David J. Eicher, editor of Astronomy, “cloudy nights, light pollution, and freezing temperatures fall away to an anytime view of the universe in the best personal planetarium ever made.”
The application is a blend of software and web services created with what Microsoft calls its high-performance Visual Experience Engine, which allows rapid navigation through rich image environments. WorldWide Telescope stitches together terabytes of high-resolution sky photos.
The project began when Szalay and Jim Gray at Microsoft Research began exploring how to make the terabytes of data captured as part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey available over the web. One aspect of this work was recognition that astronomers needed a uniform system to easily access all of the world’s astronomical data. WorldWide Telescope draws on this system, called the National Virtual Observatory, for the data it displays.
Microsoft Research formed close ties with members of the academic, education, and scientific communities to make the project a reality. The WorldWide Telescope team invited Astronomy magazine to host one of the project’s first online communities. “Astronomy magazine has a rich tradition of making astronomy easy to understand,” says Curtis Wong, manager of Microsoft’s Next Media Research Group.