Virtual Telescope Brings Universe Down to Earth
The Great Orion Nebula as seen by Microsoft's free online WorldWide Telescope.
Credit: Microsoft Corporation

Exploring the universe can be as simple as turning on your home computer thanks to a new digital archive filled with views from some of the world's best land- and space-based telescopes.

Microsoft officially launched the free online WorldWide Telescope, which allows Internet denizens to pan around and zoom through the night sky.

"The WorldWide Telescope is a powerful tool for science and education that makes it possible for everyone to explore the universe," said Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft. "Our hope is that it will inspire young people to explore astronomy and science, and help researchers in their quest to better understand the universe."

That freedom to explore the heavens comes courtesy of both software and Web 2.0 services that take advantage of the Microsoft Visual Experience Engine. The WorldWide Telescope takes terabytes of the best images from professional telescopes and creates high-resolution panoramas of celestial bodies that relate to their actual position in the sky.

Choosy users can decide which telescope they want to peer through, including the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory Center, the Spitzer Space Telescope and others. NASA continues to upgrade existing space telescopes such as Hubble, and has plans for future telescopes that could go on the moon.

Adventurous types can also leap back and forth between past and future to see the changing locations of the planets in the sky, or view the universe through different wavelengths of the light spectrum to reveal strange mysteries such as a giant hole in the universe.

People can examine everything from the solar system to beyond the Milky Way galaxy, or follow guided tours headed by astronomers and educators at major universities and planetariums, drawing praise from some professional astronomers for its educational value and its usefulness in their own work.

"Users can see the X-ray view of the sky, zoom into bright radiation clouds, and then cross-fade into the visible light view and discover the cloud remnants of a supernova explosion from a thousand years ago," said Roy Gould, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "I believe this new creation from Microsoft will have a profound impact on the way we view the universe."

The WorldWide Telescope stands as "a beautiful platform for explaining and getting people excited about astronomy, and I think the professional astronomers will come to use it as well," said Roy Williams, senior scientist from the California Institute of Technology.

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