A screenshot from Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope shows Jupiter orbiting the sun.
Just as space telescopes are getting better and better, so are the telescopes you can download onto your computer over the Internet. The software packages are becoming more and more like video games, letting you zoom out from Earth to explore a 3-D universe - while keeping the science rock-solid enough for professional astronomers to use.
Microsoft Research has made a splash in the past couple of weeks with the "Autumnal Equinox Beta" release of its WorldWide Telescope. (Microsoft is a partner in the msnbc.com joint venture.) We reviewed WorldWide Telescope six months ago, and since then, Microsoft has smoothed out some features and added others.
One of the coolest features is a 3-D rendering of the universe that lets you fly away from Earth, out of the solar system and into the stars that surround us. "You understand that the stars aren't just flat spots painted on the dome of the sky," Jonathan Fay, one of the lead developers for the software, told me during a demo this week.
The 3-D views are integrated all the way up from Microsoft's Virtual Earth database to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey's map of large-scale structure in the universe. "We just went from looking at Building 99 [the home of Microsoft Research] to a view of about 21 gigaparsecs," Fay said after zooming out to the max. "This basically lets you go anywhere in the universe."
Another feature might go unnoticed unless you know where to look: Since its inception, the WorldWide Telescope has been set up to let users create and share their own "tours" of the sky. Now you can see at least some of the tours as videos at the WorldWide Telescope Web site.
More astrophotographs and 360-degree panoramas have been added to this beta version, including all-around views of the Apollo lunar landing sites. There's a nicer fly-around feature for the solar system, and you can overlay much more imagery - including a gamma-ray view of the universe from the recently launched Fermi space telescope.
Celestia and Digital Universe
The hardware requirements for WorldWide Telescope haven't changed much in the past six months, so it'll still be a while before I can run it on my clunky home computer. But Fay said the requirements have been set conservatively. "We'd rather have people surprised that it works than angry that it doesn't work," he said. Although there's no Mac or Linux version, Fay said the software chugs along pretty well on a Macbook running Windows.
Ogle Earth's Stefan Geens provides a detailed review of WWT, including a feature-by-feature comparison with the popular Celestia virtual telescope as well as the hard-core Digital Universe Atlas and PartiView viewer.
"For navigating the solar system and nearby stars, Celestia still rules, though bear in mind that WWT is beta," Geens wrote. "WWT provides the easiest path to getting a sense of the size and the composition of the visible universe (if you have Windows), while for those willing to do the work, PartiView offers the most data and can produce some beautiful results."
Google Sky and Stellarium
There are lots of good (and free) virtual telescopes out there, and they're getting better all the time. When it comes to popularity, the leader would have to be Google Sky, which is integrated with the Google Earth viewing software. Google Earth has reportedly been downloaded more than 400 million times, and anyone who has updated the program over the past 14 months got Sky at the same time.
Just a few weeks ago, Google added a planet-search feature to Sky, and there's a whole universe of add-ons that can be found by combing through the Google Earth Blog or the Google Earth Community's Sky forum.
One of the coolest recent innovations is a plug-in that lets you embed Google Earth's 3-D applications into Web pages, said Noel Gorelick, technical lead and manager for Google Sky. "You can actually animate things moving across the sky, and have the Millennium Falcon go from planet to planet," he said.
If you have all the downloads in place on your computer, you can see the plug-in at work in the "USS Voyager Astrometrics Exoplanetary Data Console" on Arizona State University's Web site. The app is a fact-filled catalog of extrasolar planets, enhanced with audio and a hilarious "Star Trek" theme. "Clearly this guy has made it his own," Gorelick said.
"We want to give people tools to go out and be crazy with. ... There are a lot of people who are capable of doing something cool, so let's enable them to do it," he said.
A screen shot shows Stellarium's user interface for astronomical objects.
The open-source Stellarium virtual telescope is adding features as well, starting with a slicker user interface. The latest version should make it easier for additional datasets to be brought into the viewer, said Rob Spearman, one of the project's developers.
He said Stellarium is already being used by the professionals at the European Southern Observatory (which is in the process of taking on a longer name, the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere). "Astronomers can do a visual browse of their terabytes of data," Spearman said.
Stellarium is also being used as a planetarium program by about 150 customers around the world. "What the audience is seeing is just Stellarium on a dome," said Spearman, who co-founded Digitalis Education Solutions, a company based in Washington state that sells digital planetarium systems.
Education ... community networking ... and professional-level research: Those are the applications that come up over and over again when you talk to folks who are tweaking their virtual-telescope offerings. One of the common aims is to let space-savvy amateurs work together on astronomical projects - a la Galaxy Zoo, Stardust @ Home and the granddaddy of distributed computing, SETI @ Home.
"What we're doing is encouraging organizations to use the communities to get crowdsourcing into what they do," Microsoft Research's Fay told me.
But Fay and his colleagues are targeting the professionals as well as the amateurs. He said that philosophy goes back to the originator of the WorldWide Telescope concept, the late researcher Jim Gray.
"We're going to try to have a balance between what we do for consumers and what we do for professional astronomers," Fay said. "Usually, it's the death of a product to try to be all things to all people. But for astronomy, the democratization of science that Jim Gray wanted is really important to us."
For evidence that the trickle-down approach to astronomy is working, Fay doesn't have to look any farther than his own family. "Even my 3-year-old sits there by the mouse, and he likes flying through the planets," he told me. "Three years old!"