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A new cosmos on the Web

Microsoft Research
This screenshot from the Web-based version of WorldWide Telescope shows Venus'
surface, mapped by the Magellan probe and enhanced with other imagery.

A year after making its debut as a downloadable software program, Microsoft Research's WorldWide Telescope is going public on the World Wide Web. It's the latest move aimed at widening the "market" for free online exploration of the cosmos.

There's lots of software that gives you the universe on your computer - ranging from the kind of programs you pay good money for (such as Starry Night, Redshift and TheSky), to free programs available over the Internet (Sky on Google Earth, Stellarium and Celestia, as well as the classic WorldWide Telescope, a.k.a. WWT), to Web-based planetariums (Google Sky and Heavens-Above).

Today Microsoft took the wraps off its own Web client, based on the standalone version of WWT, at the annual MIX conference in Las Vegas. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

Many of the WorldWide Telescope's features have been carried over: You can see thousands of the night sky's coolest sights in multiple wavelengths, thanks to a rich database of imagery from space telescopes as well as ground-based observatories.

For example, you can bring up the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) in optical wavelengths, load in Spitzer's infrared view, and then use a slider button to morph one view into the other. The dark, dusty swirls in the optical view turn out to be exactly where the infrared emissions are the brightest.

You can also sit back and let someone show you around, thanks to tours that have been prepared by space fans ranging from professional astrophysicists to a 6-year-old kid. And you can load up panoramas created by probes on Mars, Apollo astronauts on the moon, or photographers visiting the Mauna Kea observatories in Hawaii (or the lobby of Microsoft Research's headquarters, for that matter).

The release is meant to make the WorldWide Telescope available to non-Windows computer users as well as Windows users who may be reluctant to install a big piece of software, said Jonathan Fay, one of WWT's co-creators at Microsoft Research. He said 2 million users have downloaded the standalone program, but for every Web site visitor who has done the download, there have been almost 100 visitors who have not.

You still need to have Microsoft's multimedia plug-in, known as Silverlight, but Fay said he hopes users won't find that to be a huge hurdle.

"If they've seen Web advertising, they've probably already installed Silverlight," he said. (The plug-in was used for NBC video streaming during last year's Olympics, and it's also playing a supporting role in this month's "March Madness" tournament.)

Also, there are some features that haven't been carried over - such as the ability to create those cool guided tours, or navigate the universe in 3-D. "If you can use the 3-D mode, that's what you want to install," Fay said.

Fay keeps a MacBook Air laptop sitting on the edge of his desk at Microsoft Research, connected to the Internet through a flaky wireless connection, just to get a sense of how the Web client works for real-world users. The graphics aren't as high-resolution as they are in the classic WWT, and the imagery is slower to load - mostly due to the connection speed - but at least it works.

Fay and the other main man behind the project, Curtis Wong, are focusing on making the high-quality version of WorldWide Telescope good enough for professional researchers to rely on. Astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics are already using WWT to help keep track of their image databases, and Fay hints that more announcements are on the way. (I'll provide updates at the end of this item if and when they are announced.)

Amateur astronomers are also taking to the WorldWide Telescope, in part thanks to efforts such as the Astrometry site on Flickr. Photographs of celestial sights can be coded up so that they drop right into the WWT Web view. Fay said the WorldWide Telescope plays well with the Virtual Astronomy Multimedia Project, an effort to standardize how astronomical photos are tagged.

In the past few weeks, it seems as if the competition between Microsoft and Google has been heating up in the celestial sphere: Google Earth has added the ability to create guided tours, a la Microsoft's WWT, and rolled out an eye-pleasing array of Martian imagery. (Google's "Live From Mars" image stream, drawing upon the latest pictures from Mars orbiters, came online shortly after last week's launch.)

Now Microsoft has raised the bar for Web-based space exploration, moving into a realm where Google Sky has had the lead.

Fay said the way WWT uses Silverlight could be adapted to other applications as well, including Web-based gaming environments and experiments in geographic-based crowdsourcing. "This is a game-changer in terms of what people are going to expect from the Web," he said.

And in fact, the folks from Microsoft and the folks from Google are learning from each other. Neither Google Sky nor WorldWide Telescope are being done for the money, since both programs are free. Rather, they're helping to blaze a technological trail for other pursuits - while at the same time providing something useful and fun for scientists as well as the general public.

"The more, the better - and the science is going to benefit in the end," Fay said.

To see how far astronomical visualization has come in the past 45 years, check out this report about the first close-range images of Mars ever sent back by a space probe - Mariner 4 in the mid-1960s. The image data was printed out on strips of paper, and then hand-colored by engineers like a paint-by-numbers picture. That's a far cry from the stunning views we feature every month in our Space Gallery.