The skies may be the next frontier in travel, yet not even the wealthiest space tourist can zoom out to, say, the Crab Nebula, the Trapezium Cluster or Eta Carinae, a star 100 times more massive than the sun and 7,500 light years away.
Far out: (left) Curtis Wong and Jonathan Fay helped create Worldwide Telescope; (right) the application offers vivid images of heavenly bodies.
But, those galactic destinations and thousands of others can now be toured and explored at the controls of a computer mouse. The project, the WorldWide Telescope, is the culmination of years of work by researchers at Microsoft, and the website and free downloadable software are available at www.WorldWideTelescope.org.
There are many online astronomy sites, but astronomers say the Microsoft entry sets a new standard in three-dimensional representation of space, the ease of navigation, the visual experience and features like guided tours narrated by experts.
“Exploring the virtual universe is incredibly smooth and seamless, like a top-of-the-line computer game, but also the science is correct,” says Alexander Szalay, a professor of astronomy and physics at Johns Hopkins. “No sacrifices have been made. It just feels as if you are in it.”
Like many fields of science, astronomy has become digitized and data rich in recent years, making it an ideal proving ground for advanced computing techniques in data mining, visualization and searching.
So, it is scarcely surprising that the other major company with an ambitious astronomy service online is Google. The Internet search giant first layered astronomical data and images on to Google Earth last August.
Two months ago, Google introduced a Web-based version of Google Sky, layering space images on its searchable map service.
There may be no space war between Microsoft and Google, but their offerings reflect their different cultures. The WorldWide Telescope results from careful planning and lengthy development. It has the richer graphics and it created special software to present the images of spherical space objects with less distortion. WorldWide Telescope requires downloading a hefty piece of software, and it runs only on Microsoft Windows.
Google Earth, where Google Sky began, requires a software download, but its Web-based version, which came out in March, does not. The Google culture encourages engineers to put new things on to the Internet quickly and keep improving them, a philosophy geared to constant evolution.
Despite differences, the companies share motivations. Lior Ron, Google Sky product manager, says the astronomy focus “says a lot about the interests of the people in both companies”. At Google, Ron, 31, is one of a group of astronomy enthusiasts. He built his own telescope as a teenager and went to astronomy camps in his native Israel.
A personal fascination with astronomy has also energized work at Microsoft. Jonathan Fay, 42, the lead software engineer on the project, has built an observatory, with a dome 8ft in diameter, in his backyard in suburban Seattle.
The Microsoft project began to take on its current look and design in fall 2006, when Curtis Wong started working on it full time. Wong, another amateur astronomer, heads a new media research group at Microsoft, which he joined in 1998.
A conversation with Wong, 54, is different from those with most around the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington, which is mainly populated by engineers, marketers and business managers. Wong speaks of the WorldWide Telescope allowing citizen explorers to make and post virtual tours.
“What we're starting with is just a foundation,” Wong said. “When it really gets interesting is when more and more stories populate the WorldWide Telescope.”
Young people today are used to sharing stories, on MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and elsewhere. Educators hope that the WorldWide Telescope can entice them to take an interest in astronomy. “Science has a bad rap because it is seen as a dry accumulation of facts,” says Roy R. Gould, a science education expert at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “But this is a visually beautiful environment where you can explore, create and share.”
©2008/The New York Times
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