Tuesday October 17th 2017

Microsoft’s “WorldWide Telescope” Brings Astronomy Home

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A few days ago, I wrote about Binocular Astronomy, and how to observe the night sky as a beginner. That tutorial is intended to get you started on some of the basics and provide you with essential tools. As a plus to that some of you may have heard by now that Microsoft and NASA have teamed up in the name of science. If you haven’t you will soon. While this new project will enhance your astronomical observations, and possibly take the science to a whole new level, it is still based on static images. In other words, it won’t show you a comet, galaxy, etc in real time.

On July 12th NASA and Microsoft Research released an amazing and seamless tour of the Mars surface using the massive library of photographs taken by NASA probe over the years. This high-resolution tour has both narration options and freehand options, allowing you to follow along with a guide or take control and zoom into and over craters while rotating the red planet with ease. For the first time, you can fully observe a celestial body that would be impossible for many of us to physically see in our lifetimes (if ever) in a realistic 3D style. Even the best backyard telescope would pale in comparison to the tons of photographs taken by NASA of Mars and it’s surface.

That would be enough for many of us, but a day later (July 13th) Microsoft and NASA announced yet another amazing feat in bringing the universe to your computer. You may need some tissue so I’ll give you a moment.

Using imagery from Northern and Southern global locations (in California and Australia), Microsoft Research has developed a terapixel image of our visible (and not so visible) sky as seen from earth. This image provides a detailed perspective of nearby galaxies, nebulae, planets, and even our visible Milky Way Galaxy in relation to our position in the solar system! Ok, you may remember that this has been attempted to some degree before, but this time it really is different. The images are sharp, color balanced, and seamless so when you zoom through space, you will not hit pixelated imagery (which can really do damage to your forward shields). Click the image for a larger version.

Constellation Sagittarius: Before and After Terapixel Adjustment

The website for Microsoft Research (where these tours are housed) is located at www.worldwidetelescope.org.

One last thing to share, mainly because it puzzled me too. This entire project is available to you for FREE! You just need to install some software and you are on your way. Microsoft and NASA have created this venture with the intention of sharing data with the public and improving the educational materials available for schools and science institutions, as well as the hope of inspiring new generations of scientists. This was also done in honor of one of the lead computer science researchers on the project who recently passed away, Jim Gray, who also worked on the Microsoft Virtual Earth project.

I think we should really applaud Microsoft and NASA for providing this. I am sure many of us feel it is about time that images, taken with our tax dollars, are available for general consumption. I feel this too, but I think they went above and beyond here. I downloaded the software and tried the Mars tour and was speechless. This is really going to go a long way in educating and inspiring people. It is a something that you know will only get better with time. Making this free sets a precedent that I hope others follow.

So turn off all your lights, pick up a nice HD projector, get your official pack of Prof. Retro’s Space Food Samplers with Astronaut Ice Cream and Space Food Sticks, and strap down the kids. I am sure it will be quite a rush.

Enjoy and if you make any shattering discoveries, be sure to let us know.

You can get more information, additional images, and find a great write up by Rebecca Boyle about the Terapixel Night Sky on the Popular Science Magazine website.

You can find System Requirements for the WorldWide Telescope under the FAQ section. It took me a while to find it, so I copied it here for your convenience. You can also press the FAQ link above for other common questions.

WorldWide Telescope minimum system requirements (For PC):

  • Microsoft® XP SP2 (minimum), Windows® Vista®, or Windows® 7 (recommended)
  • PC with Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 2 gigahertz (GHz) or faster, recommended
  • 1 gigabyte (GB) of RAM; 2 GB RAM recommended
  • 3D accelerated card with 128 megabytes (MB) RAM; discrete graphics card with dedicated 256-MB VRAM recommended for higher performance
  • 1 GB of available hard disk space; 10 GB recommended for off-line features and higher performance browsing
  • XGA (1024 x 768) or higher resolution monitor
  • Microsoft Mouse or compatible pointing and scrolling device
  • Microsoft® DirectX® version 9.0c and .NET Framework 2.0
  • Required for some features; Internet connection at 56 Kbps or higher through either an Internet service provider (ISP) or a network. Internet access might require a separate fee to an ISP; local or long-distance telephone charges might also apply

Estimated download time 1 hour (56Kb), 10 minutes (DSL 512Kb)

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