Microsoft makes space explorers of all of us

Going where no man has gone before, Microsoft launches WorldWide Telescope

Always wanted to know more about that star overhead? Now you can.

Microsoft this week launched the beta of its WorldWide Telescope project, giving users free access to information and images stitched together from telescopes around the world and in space. People will be able to use their computers to pan across the night sky or zoom in on a particular star or nebula.

It's a project that Curtis Wong, a principal researcher at Microsoft and one of the leaders of the WorldWide Telescope project, has been dreaming about for the last 20 years.

"I was a kid who grew up in Los Angeles with lots of smog and lights. When I got out of the city and saw the Milky Way, I was like, 'Wow'," he said. "I wanted to share that with people. I wanted a powerful telescope to zoom in and see the universe."

Today, Wong has more than one powerful telescope at his disposal. The WorldWide Telescope project gives him many at his fingertips. For years, Wong and other Microsoft researchers have worked to gather images from the world's best telescopes, like the Hubble Space Telescope and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey that had never before been sewn together in one place.

With 13 terabytes of data on hand, Wong explained that people will be able to focus in on Saturn or Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter. Users also will be able to quickly find related data and information, take guided tours or even create their own tours for others to watch.

"When you have that much data, the average person can have access to the same kinds of images that scientists see," Wong said. "I'm hoping it will inspire a new generation of kids to get excited about and want to explore the universe. It's a map to the real world."

Roy Gould, an astrophysicist at the Harvard Center for Astrophysics, said in a recorded demonstration shown to the press this spring that the WorldWide Telescope project now holds information on some 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."

According to Microsoft, the application itself is a blend of software and Web 2.0 services created using the company's Visual Experience Engine, which allows panning and zooming around the night sky with rich image environments.

Wong said one of the biggest challenges has been trying to work with the massive images. He noted that the first thing users will see is an image of the entire night sky, which is a terapixel in size. To show that image, stitched together smaller views into what appears to be one seamless sky, Wong said.

He added that the group also struggled taking images from so many different sources and having them show up in the right places in the night sky.

"We're adding more and more content to it," Wong said, noting that he expects they'll have 30 or 40 terabytes of data by the end of the year. "I used to like to go look through some of the galaxies. The more you see, the more you realize there are to see. It's really sobering? Now, I'm spending a lot of time looking at pictures from the Mars Rover."

The project is being dedicated to Jim Gray, manager of Microsoft Research's eScience Group, who went missing in January of 2007 and is presumably lost at sea.

Wong noted that Gray worked on the WorldWide Telescope project and was his "number one cheerleader."

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