Virtual Telescopes Set To Democratize Astronomy

Microsoft's unveiling of WorldWide Telescope, a research project six years in the making, not only provides a powerful means of accessing the mountains of astronomical image data that reside in databases all over the Web, it could also signal the beginning of a virtual 'space race' with Google, which launched a similar offering last August called Google Sky.

Astronomers who've tested both tools say WorldWide Telescope appears to have the edge in terms of user interface, functionality, and appearance.

"WorldWide Telescope is graphically stunning and seamlessly integrated, and it has managed to solve all the technology problems of being able to access these vast databases of stored data," said Dr. Laura Danly, curator at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

"In many ways, WorldWide Telescope has more of an artistic touch," said Alexander Szalay, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins University.

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However, most astronomers aren't interested in whether Google's or Microsoft's virtual telescope is superior -- they're just happy that the two tech giants are focusing their considerable R&D muscle in a way that benefits the science of astronomy as a whole.

Szalay in June 2002 co-authored a paper with Microsoft database guru Jim Gray titled "The World-Wide Telescope, an Archetype for Online Science".

In the paper, Gray and Szalay noted that of the approximately 100 terabytes of astronomical data that was online in 2002, the vast majority had never been seen by human eyes. A virtual telescope front-end for this data would open it up in ways that would have far reaching benefits down the road, from both an astronomical and data architecture standpoint, Gray and Szalay wrote.

"The WorldWide Telescope will have a democratizing effect on astronomy," Gray and Szalay wrote in the paper.

Gray disappeared in January 2007 while sailing off the coast of San Francisco, and Microsoft is offering WorldWide Telescope free of charge as a tribute to his contributions.

For years, armchair astronomers have been able to explore the heavens using interesting, but less sophisticated programs like Stellarium, OpenUniverse, and Celestia, or commercial software such as Starry Night. But WorldWide Telescope and Google Sky add more value because they're able to tap into online astronomical image databases, according to Danly.

"Astronomers know how to get to those data sets, and educational media producers can now draw on them too. It's the level of interface that makes it so accessible: You don't have to know anything arcane, and you can be a complete novice," Danly said.

To Joe Bardwell, president and chief scientist of Connect802, a solution provider in San Ramon, Calif., the astronomical databases that power Google Sky and WorldWide Telescope are more than just inventory lists, but could eventually come into play as early warning systems for global scale catastrophes.

"One important aspect of the cataloging process is the potential to identify Near Earth Objects (NEOs) that could potentially collide with our planet with devastating results," Bardwell said. "Leveraging the power of the Web and a collective effort on the part of motivated amateurs is as close to a viable solution to mapping the visible universe as we've got."

Danly says there's room for both WorldWide Telescope and Google Sky to grow into larger and more immersive platforms that have higher end scientific applications. "There are certainly ways for people who know what to do with this information to take it to deeper levels of astronomical research," said Danly.

Indeed, Eric Bell, a staff scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany finds the software useful as a tool for gauging the relative positions of celestial objects.

"In an era of light pollution in the big cities in which many of us live, this is an important way to help foster interest and excitement about nature, the universe, science and rational thought," Bell said.