Travel through the universe

New, free software from Microsoft Research brings imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope and other space- and ground-based telescopes directly to your desktop.

Microsoft Research WorldWide Telescope (Credit: Microsoft Research)

Last night, Microsoft Research released WorldWide Telescope--new, free software that enables users to explore the universe with impressive content from the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory Center, and other famed ground- and space-based telescopes. Colorful nebulae, distant galaxies, black holes, and radiation clouds are all accessible from your desktop with a few clicks. The software has been released for free in honor of Jim Gray, a Microsoft researcher who was lost at sea last year.

Google Earth added a similar feature called Google Sky with its Version 4.2 release. Google also offers a browser-based version of Google Sky, while Microsoft requires the download and installation of the WorldWide Telescope software. Google Sky is a bit more user friendly right now, but Microsoft has the advantage of a wealth of content. For example, Google Sky offers infrared, microwave, and historical views of objects in the universe; WorldWide Telescope allows nearly 50 different types of viewing, including infrared dust maps and cosmic microwave background, along with a bevy of other options that I couldn't even begin to explain.

Google Sky has the advantage of being quite a bit easier to pick up and use immediately, but in actuality, WorldWide Telescope is a totally different beast. Google Sky is a bonus feature that Google added onto its Earth-imagery application; WorldWide Telescope's primary objective is to create a visual representation of the universe on your desktop. You can peruse telescope images of Earth with WorldWide Telescope, but there's not the detailed satellite imagery of your neighborhood that you get in Google Earth.

WorldWide Telescope interface

Collections in the Explore tab offer shortcuts to amazing photographs like this one.

(Credit: CNET Networks/Microsoft Research)

The main WorldWide Telescope interface includes seven tabs for navigating: Explore, Guided Tours, Search, Community, Telescope, View, and Settings. Clicking each tab presents a variety of options across a bar along the top of the program, and clicking the arrow below each tab results in a drop-down menu with options. Some of the tabs, such as Explore and Search, include collapsible submenus with further options at the bottom of the interface.

The bulk of the screen is devoted to the program's primary purpose: displaying detailed images of objects throughout the universe. With default view settings, constellations are outlined in orange, and red "figures" display the constellations' conventional representations. For example, the orange constellation Ursa Minor looks like a bizarro version of the Stanley Cup, but the red figure displays the classic "little dipper."

You can move around the sky by clicking with your left mouse and dragging the screen. Holding down Shift while doing so will rotate and tilt the view. Likewise, clicking and holding the center mouse button also rotates/tilts. You can zoom in with the "+" sign or Page Down, and zoom out with the "-" sign or Page Up. Scrolling the mouse wheel also zooms, but not at the fine level of the buttons. Right clicking on any object will pop up the Finder Scope, which displays information like name, location, size, and position of celestial bodies.

Ten existing collections group telescope destinations such as planets, constellations, nebulae, and stars. A few of the collections are devoted to sources, such as Hubble Images, Chandra Images, or the Messier Catalog. An empty collection titled "My Collections" lets you save your favorite places in the universe to visit them later. Simply click "Add New Item" to save a spot on the screen to your new group. Collections can also be played back as slide shows to impress your spouse or colleagues.

Benjamin's tour of the Ring Nebula

Benjamin's journey to the Ring Nebula is awfully cute (and informative).

(Credit: CNET Networks/Microsoft Research)

Perhaps the coolest feature of WorldWide Telescope is the ability to watch guided tours of the universe conducted by experts and users, such as Alyssa Goodman of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics discussing the dark regions of galaxies that form stars and planets or Dr. Frank Summers or 6-year-old Benjamin taking a journey to the Ring Nebula. Loading a guided tour creates a new tab at the top of the interface, and you can navigate forward or backward through the tour as you like.

There are well over 30 tours already included in WorldWide Telescope. If you don't find the one you want, creating a tour yourself is fun and easy, as well. Select "Create New Tour" from the Guided Tours drop-down menu, and enter in the basic details for your tour, such as author, description, level (i.e. beginner, intermediate, or advanced), and taxonomy. After your create your tour, adding slides is as simple as adding screens to a collection. Just hit "Add a Slide" and your screen will be saved to a timeline across the top of the interface.

You can add text, images, and shapes to enhance your tour, and you can even layer a soundtrack and voiceover using upload widgets at the right of the guided tour options. I'm not exactly sure how you can upload or share tours with other users, or how user tours like Benjamin's make it into the WorldWide Telescope interface. The program's Help file instructs users to "click the top of the Guided Tours tab and click Submit Tour for Publication," but I didn't see that option available. Maybe my tour stinks.

There are a few niggling bugs in WorldWide Telescope--zooming with the mouse wheel often scrolls through thumbnail panes in search results accidentally, and canceling the download of a guided tour inevitably crashed the program for me--and the help content is hidden underneath the Explore drop-down menu, which could leave newbies high and dry upon starting the program. However, the software boasts a hoard of amazing telescope imagery to be explored as well as very cool features that let you view, save, and manage that imagery in many different ways. WorldWide Telescope appears to be an invaluable tool for hobbyists, astronomers, students, educators, or anyone curious about the universe.

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