Imagine charting the constellations during your lunch hour or taking a peek through the Hubble Telescope at your favorite hotspot. Now you can thanks to the WorldWide Telescope, a free project from Microsoft Research and a network of the world’s leading space research institutions. Users simply download the software to their computer, and the universe is theirs.
“By combining terabytes of incredible imagery and data with easy-to-use software for viewing and moving through all that information, the WorldWide Telescope opens the door to new ways to see and experience the wonders of space,” said Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft. “Our hope is that it will inspire young people to explore astronomy and science and help researchers in their quest to better understand the universe.”
The WorldWide Telescope compiles thousands and thousands images from ground-based and space-based telescopes from around the world, like the Hubble, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory Center, and the Spitzer Space Telescope. It relies on Microsoft’s Visual Experience Engine, which lets users seamlessly pan and zoom around these images in relation to their subjects’ actual position in the sky.
Users also can check out the sky of the past, present, and future. They aren’t limited to the visible spectrum either, as the WWT offers different wavelengths of light to reveal more of the structure of the universe. “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,” said Roy Gould, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
Users can get lost in the universe pretty easily, since it is so big, after all. That’s why WWT also provides guided tours of specific locations like individual planets or broad areas like constellations or other galaxies hosted by some of the world’s leading astronomers. Or, users can create their own slideshow tours for educational presentations or their own enjoyment, assembling images and adding their own text and even audio as easily as if they were using PowerPoint.
Microsoft didn’t forget about the potential of Web 2.0, either. It has partnered with Astronomy magazine, Sky & Telescope magazine, and Meade Instruments Corp. to create online communities based on the WWT. These communities offer exclusive content while allowing users to share their astronomical experiences. Microsoft expects additional communities in the future, partnered with other companies and research institutions, as well as more organic, user-driven groups.
PC requirements include the Windows XP SP2 operating system, a 2-GHz or faster Intel Core 2 duo processor, 1 Gbyte of RAM, a 3D accelerated card with 128 Mbytes of RAM, 1 Gbyte of available hard-disk space, and an XGA monitor. The Mac requirements are similar, including Mac OS X version 10.2 and Boot Camp, an Nvidia GeForce 8600M GT graphics card with 128-Mbyte SDRAM, the HFS+ hard-disk format, 10 Gbytes of available hard-disk space, and a 1440-by-900 monitor.
“WorldWide Telescope brings to life a dream that many of us in Microsoft Research have pursued for years, and we are proud to release this as a free service to anyone who wants to explore the universe,” said Curtis Wong, manager of Microsoft’s Next Media Research Group. “Where is Saturn in the sky? Does the Milky Way really have a supermassive black hole in the center of the galaxy? With the universe at your fingertips, you can discover the answers for yourself.”