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Technology

Microsoft's Telescope for Everyone


The WorldWide Telescope lets amateur astronomers explore the cosmos through a computer, which provides a photo map of the heavens

For people who have gazed up at the night sky in wonder and wished they had someone there to identify what they were looking at, Microsoft's (MSFT) WorldWide Telescope (WWT) is coming to the rescue.

The service, which opened to the public on May 13, lets people explore the cosmos through any computer with an Internet connection. It combines about 12 terabytes of data, including 50 surveys and 1,000 high-resolution studies, with links to astronomy research on sites around the Web. It blends the data with regularly updated photos captured by high-powered telescopes on and off the Earth, including the Hubble Space Telescope, circling the planet 353 miles up, and the Cerro Tololo Observatory, 312 miles north of Santiago, Chile, in the foothills of the Andes. Put it all together, and the WWT knits together a spellbinding panorama of the night sky.

There are some similar services available now, including Google (GOOG) Sky from the search kingpin. But what sets WWT apart is how easy it is to navigate the service and dig into more information about planets, stars, and galaxies. Sweep your mouse sideways, and you're spinning across the galaxy. Move the mouse forward, and you hurtle into the picture. You can close in on Sombrero Galaxy or a black hole in Galaxy NGC 4261 and find yourself immersed in startling details and whirling brilliant hues.

"Traveling Through Space"

Once you find an interesting object, you can uncover loads of additional information. A mouse click brings up links from outside sources, including NASA, Wikipedia, and Europe's SIMBAD Astronomical Database. One link on the group of galaxies known as Stephen's Quintet explains how the galaxies are colliding with each other and ripping stars away from one another.

The work of piecing the universe together is WWT's strength. At Google Sky, for instance, you have to click to move in and out, much like you do for Google Maps. Much of the heavy lifting Microsoft did was to pull together the images into one quilt. "Even though you can download any professional image of the universe now online, it's a fragment," says Roy Gould, an education researcher at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who unveiled WWT at the Technology Entertainment Design (TED) conference in February, but isn't otherwise associated with the project. "This puts it together seamlessly and gives you the impression that you're traveling through space."

How can people use WWT? First, you go to worldwidetelescope.org, download the application, and install it on your computer for free. (Be forewarned, it works only with Microsoft's Windows operating system.) The download is connected to the Internet, so that when you look up information online, a little window pops up. The service also automatically updates when new photos are taken by the telescopes.

Such services—whether WWT, Google Sky, or Google Earth—are the early models for the way data from all types of fields will be modeled in the future, says Alyssa Goodman, professor of astronomy at Harvard University who worked on WWT. Whether one is studying the inside of a cell or the brain, using imagery to make sense of large sets of data helps present the data in a way that makes sense for humans. And while the WWT initially is intended for amateur stargazers and teachers eager to spark a passion in students for the sky, it's not hard to imagine how the service could be used as a tool for professionals to share research and questions.

Dedicated to a Lost Colleague

WWT is an ambitious project tinged by tragedy. Curtis Wong, the manager of Microsoft's Next Media Research group, developed the service based on the work of fellow Microsoft researcher Jim Gray. Since the 1990s, Wong wanted to create ways to make exploring the sky more accessible to people outside of universities. Gray, who won the prestigious Turing Award for work on database and transaction processes, started working a decade ago with researchers in astronomy, oceanography, and environmental monitoring to create digital libraries for their work. In 2001, Gray and Alex Szalay, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, developed SkyServer, a site that publish the images from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Wong helped design the interface for the site and talked with Gray about building something broader. Gray encouraged Wong, but it wasn't until Gray was lost at sea off the California coast in January, 2007, that Wong started working on the project in earnest. WWT is dedicated to Gray.

To turn WWT into even more of an educational tool, Microsoft built a feature that allows people to pull together different images and create narrated stories that they can share with others. "People have always looked up to the night sky and made up stories," Wong says. "This is a way for them to share those stories and that knowledge."

The service also allows you to look at different approaches to studying the universe, whether by studying cosmic dust or microwaves. That provides people with a broader understanding of astronomy research. And folks can even sign up to get feeds from specific telescopes around the world or in space.

WWT is expected to add more features that Google Sky has now. For instance, researchers can add their own data to Google Sky and use application programming interfaces (APIs) to put models of their data on their own sites. That competition, says Goodman, will be good for both as well as for researchers and amateurs alike.

Green is an associate editor for BusinessWeek .

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