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Sharing the Google Sky

Google and the Slooh virtual-telescope company have announced a deal to integrate tens of thousands of pictures captured by Slooh's members automatically into Google Earth's astronomical database. The arrangement could bring scientific crowdsourcing to a whole new level.

Millions of Internet users have already been participating in space-themed projects such as SETI @ Home, Galaxy Zoo and Moon Zoo, but those projects mostly involve sifting through data collected by the professionals. The collaboration announced today immediately puts images of more than 35,000 celestial objects into a Google Sky layer within the free Google Earth standalone program. New Slooh pictures will be added as soon as they're taken.

Slooh's members go on five-minute missions that put them in control of robotic telescopes in the Canary Islands, Chile and Australia. The remote-control "Space Camera" system allows them to snap pictures of the celestial objects they're seeing over the Internet. Now any Google Earth user will be able to see those pictures by clicking on a link in a data bubble, as illustrated in the screenshot above.

Slooh offers membership packages for "Mission Commanders" that range from $5.95 per month to $49.95 per year. There are also card sets for kids (available from Radio Shack and Toys 'R' Us) and a free membership level that lets you tag along on someone else's mission.

In a news release, Slooh founder Michael Paolucci said he was "thrilled" to announce the deal with Google. "Sharing the view through a live telescope is a powerful experience, one we are pleased to now share with Google's worldwide audience," he said.

In addition to serving up the pictures, Google plans to "broadcast" Slooh astronomy missions and special events such as lunar eclipses.

"Slooh's 'map the universe' layer brings a powerful educational component to Google Earth," Noel Gorelick, technical lead for Sky in Google Earth, said in the news release. "Not only does the ability to explore space live bring a totally new active dimension to the experience, but also gives Google users a deeper awareness of the positions of a myriad of celestial objects."

In a follow-up phone interview, Gorelick said the collaboration with Slooh was an example of Google's Web 3.0 philosophy. "It's live distributed content, with the ability to mash it up in ways that people have not thought of before," he told me. "That's the way Google in general is going. I'm looking forward to more projects along this vein."

Not every Slooh snapshot would go into Google Sky, he said. "Images that are blurry or have clouds in them won't make it through the process. That process will filter out bad images," Gorelick told me.

He acknowledged that the idea of astronomical photo-sharing is not new. Celestia and Microsoft Research's WorldWide Telescope are among the alternative astronomy programs that offer similar capabilities — through the Celestia discussion forums and the Astrometry Flickr WWT site, respectively. (Microsoft and NBC Universal are partners in the msnbc.com joint venture.)

"You could do the same thing, essentially, in the other things," Gorelick said. "It's just a fair amount of work to do that. The part that we've done is that it's streamlined, automatic."

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