Where is Saturn in relation to the moon? Does the Milky Way really have a supermassive black hole in the center of the galaxy? Microsoft has some answers.
Indeed, Microsoft likes to think the final frontier got a little closer this week with its public beta launch of the WorldWide Telescope software.
WorldWide Telescope is a rich Web application that brings together images from ground- and space-based observatories across the world to allow people to explore the night sky through their computers.
"The WorldWide Telescope is a powerful tool for science and education that makes it possible for everyone to explore the universe," Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said. "By combining terabytes of incredible imagery and data with easy-to-use software for viewing and moving through all that information, the WorldWide Telescope opens the door to new ways to see and experience the wonders of space."
Navigating the Galaxies
Microsoft Research blended software and Web 2.0 services to create the high-performance Microsoft Visual Experience Engine. This engine allows users to pan and zoom around the heavens. WorldWide Telescope stitches together terabytes of high-resolution images of celestial bodies and displays them in a way that relates to their position in the sky.
The service goes beyond simple browsing of images. Users can choose which telescope they want to look through, including the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory Center, the Spitzer Space Telescope, 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.
Users have two options. They can freely browse through the solar system, galaxy and beyond, or take a guided tour of the sky hosted by astronomers and educators at major universities and planetariums.
"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."
Armchair Astronomers Rejoice
For all the oohs and ahs, WorldWide Telescope doesn't have any immediate practical applications, according to JupiterResearch analyst Michael Gartenberg. The way he puts it, "There are very few people who are traveling around the galaxy and need the equivalent of a mapping guide to the universe."
That said, Gartenberg said WorldWide Telescope does show off a cool set of features and cutting-edge technology -- and that's the point. Google's Sky may have beat Redmond to the punch, but, he said, "Microsoft wanted to demonstrate that it can create interesting and compelling scenarios in ways that others maybe are not doing."
Still, Gartenberg expects plenty of people to use the application. There remains a fascination with space, he said, and WorldWide Telescope offers a powerful application with a beautiful user experience. He expects it to appeal the most to armchair astronomers.
"At the end of the day, it's a nice showcase technology. It does clearly come from Microsoft Research," Gartenberg said. "But it isn't necessarily something that is an end-user product in itself. It isn't something to monetize, but more in the sense that we're still doing cool applications."