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Study the galaxy using the WorldWide Telescope

May 12, 2008

by Mark Ollig

Microsoft has developed a new way to explore the vastness of outer space.

This technology will merge telescope feeds from all over the world and satellites orbiting the Earth.

It will combine these sources to build a wide-ranging view of our universe.

I watched a fascinating video presentation on the Technology, Education and Design (TED) website presented by Roy Gould, a science educator and researcher at the Harvard Center for Astrophysics, and Curtis Wong, manager of Next Media Research for Microsoft.

The TED presentation video was the first public display of the “WorldWide Telescope.”

The WorldWide Telescope is a powerful new web-based software tool for exploring the universe and was developed by Curtis Wong of Microsoft Research.

“This new resource will change the way we do astronomy . . . the way we teach astronomy . . . and, most importantly, I think it’s going to change the way we see ourselves in the universe,” explained Gould.

For us, the WorldWide Telescope promises to be like having a space observatory on our desktop. It will allow us to see the sky in a way we have never seen it before.

The WorldWide Telescope software application will be free to download.

This software will provide individual exploration of “multi-dimensional views” of the stars, planets, nebula clusters and more.

It will be like taking a virtual tour of the universe; only in this case, everything is actually located where it should be. Users will be able to zoom in and out on selected locations in space.

The image locations are placed in the exact position that it would expected to be found in the sky.

Special algorithm programs place objects in the correct distance relationships from each other, depending on where and when we are looking at them.

The Microsoft “Visual Experience Engine” is the technology which provides the high-quality panning and zooming across the night sky.

This visual engine also joins together terabytes worth of images and data queried from numerous sources over the Internet.

The “sky-mode” feature allows users to see high quality images of outer space combined with images from the Hubble space telescope and Earth bound telescopes.

The WorldWide Telescope is built on the work started by Jim Gray of Microsoft and his contributions to the “Sloan Digital Sky Survey” which can be seen at http://cas.sdss.org.

I read parts of Jim Gray’s 2002 report he wrote for Microsoft on the WorldWide Telescope.

In it Gray says “…The WorldWide Telescope will have a democratizing effect on astronomy. Professional and amateur astronomers will have nearly equal access to the data. The WorldWide Telescope will also be an extraordinary tool for teaching astronomy. It gives students at every grade level access to the world’s best telescope.”

Microsoft Research, started in 1991 under the Microsoft Corporation, is dedicating the WorldWide Telescope to the memory of Jim Gray … who was lost at sea sailing earlier this year.

Microsoft is releasing this technology as a free resource to the astronomy and education communities with the hope it will inspire and empower people to explore and understand the universe as never before.

On April 25, Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft gave a speech before college students at the University of Washington in Seattle.

In this speech he talked about the WorldWide Telescope and how it started with Jim Gray’s working with space astronomers.

Gray worked with the data collected from the many separate databases the astronomers used in modeling the universe.

From this Gray wanted to create a software application capable of pulling all these databases together to act as one.

Bill Gates then gave the students a presentation of the WorldWide Telescope.

Gates explained how a person using this application could study any planet with great detail.

The video presentation zoomed in on the planet Jupiter.

He then told the students they were seeing Jupiter as it was in the sky “right now.”

Gates explained the information used to see Jupiter was being collected from many different sources, such as earth-based telescopes and also the Hubble telescope.

Gates continued, “. . . literally hundreds of different things have been used to pull this together.”

“The WorldWide Telescope illustrates a lot of things. We’ve got a lot of data out there, and with the right software we can make it approachable and understandable,” Gates said.

Gates went on to say this new technology and information will soon be available for any teacher or student to use.

The WorldWide Telescope is expected to be fully operational in a month or two. You can check its progress at http://worldwidetelescope.org.

I encourage my readers to view the WorldWide Telescope video presentation on TED at http://www.ted.com/talks/view/id/224.