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Worldwide Telescope Brings Space Exploration to Earth

Thanks in part to a Johns Hopkins University astrophysicist, the final frontier got a bit closer today with the launch of a new application that allows people to easily explore the night sky from their own computers.

WorldWide Telescope is a Web application produced by Microsoft Corp. that brings together imagery from the best ground- and space-based telescopes across the world, allowing seamless panning and zooming across the heavens. It’s free at

“WorldWide Telescope allows everyone to browse through the solar system, our galaxy and beyond with just a few clicks of a mouse. It puts the universe right there at your fingertips,” Johns Hopkins’ Alexander Szalay said.

WorldWide Telescope was made possible in part by Szalay's long collaboration with Microsoft’s Jim Gray on the development of large-scale, high performance online databases such as SkyServer and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Szalay is Alumni Centennial Professor of Astronomy in the Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins. Gray, a senior Microsoft manager and database pioneer to whom the project has been dedicated, disappeared during a 2007 boat trip and was never found.

A blend of software and Web 2.0 services created with the Microsoft high performance Visual Experience Engine, WorldWide Telescope stitches together terabytes of high-resolution images of celestial bodies, and displays them in a way that relates to their actual position in the sky. People can browse at will or take advantage of guided tours of the sky hosted by astronomers and educators at major universities and planetariums.

But the service goes well beyond the simple browsing of images. Users can choose which telescope they want to look through, including Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer or others. They can view the locations of planets in the night sky — in the past, present or future. They can view the universe through different wavelengths of light to reveal hidden structures in other parts of the galaxy. Taken as a whole, the application provides a top-to-bottom view of the science of astronomy.

“WorldWide Telescope brings to life a dream that many of us at Microsoft Research have pursued for years, and we are proud to release this as a free service to anyone who wants to explore the universe,” said Curtis Wong, manager of Microsoft’s Next Media Research Group. “Where is Saturn in the sky, in relation to the moon? Does the Milky Way really have a supermassive black hole in the center of the galaxy? With (WorldWide Telescope), you can discover the answers for yourself.”

Microsoft Research has formed close ties with members of the academic, education, and scientific communities to make WorldWide Telescope a reality. More than 10 organizations collaborated with Microsoft Research to provide the imagery, provided feedback on the application from a scientific point of view, and help turn WorldWide Telescope into a rich learning application.

Szalay, who is also a professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins, worked with Gray of Microsoft for nearly a decade on a variety of projects, including SkyServer. In addition, Szalay’s group at Johns Hopkins built the multi-terabyte archive for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (known as the “Cosmic Genome Project”) and also played a major role in the National Virtual Observatory, an alliance to construct a system connecting all astronomy data in the world.

Lisa De Nike | newswise
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