Microsoft peers at the galaxy through WorldWide Telescope

Microsoft is preparing to release the free astronomy project to the public this spring

Ever look up into the night sky and wonder about any of those twinkling points of light? Wish you could get a closer look? Maybe via a guided tour by a world-renowned astronomer?

Well, if you did, you're in luck.

Microsoft has been amassing imagery from the world's best ground and space-based telescopes -- like the Hubble telescope and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey -- to stitch together a cohesive view of the universe.

The project, called the WorldWide Telescope, will enable people to use their computers to pan across the night sky or zoom in on a particular star or nebula. They'll be able to focus in on Saturn or Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter.

The WorldWide Telescope project also will let people call up related data and information, as well as take guided tours or even create their own tours for others to launch.

The project is slated to go live online here this spring. And it will be available for free, according to Curtis Wong, a principal researcher with Microsoft and one of the leaders of the WorldWide Telescope project.

"A lot of this information has never been put together in one place," Wong told Computerworld. "Before, you'd have to do a search and know where to look. It pulls everything together. The goal is to enable kids of all ages to explore the universe in a new way."

He added that right now, the project has 10 terabytes of information stored on a server farm at Microsoft. By the end of the year, that number could jump to 100 terabytes, he said.

Roy Gould, an astrophysicist from the Harvard Center for Astrophysics, said in a recorded demonstration that at this point, the WorldWide Telescope project holds information on 300 solar systems.

"I think this will have as a profound an impact on the way we view the universe as Galileo did with the telescope a long time ago," said Gould. "It's going to change the way we do astronomy and change the way we teach astronomy and, maybe more importantly, change the way we see ourselves in the universe. Until now, our view of the universe has been disconnected and fragmented. The WorldWide Telescope is truly transformative. It lets you experience or tour the universe with astronomers as your guides -- people who are passionate about the nooks and crannies of the universe."

Gould noted that the WorldWide Telescope project will become available the year before the International Year of Astronomy, which celebrates the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first use of a telescope.

Microsoft researchers have worked on finding ways to access such massive data stores for the past 10 years, according to Wong. The WorldWide Telescope project is being dedicated to Jim Gray, a senior manager at Microsoft who did extensive work on the WorldWide Telescope project. Gray went missing during a sailboat trip in January of 2007.

"Making the data available is just the beginning," said Wong. "We'll bring together all this data and make it very accessible. We want people to learn and share and create communities of people who are learning about astronomy."

Wong said he couldn't a specific site launch date, other than to say it's due to go live in the spring.

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