The Internet as a telescope

Posted by Francis Reddy
on Thursday, February 28, 2008
Until now, I couldn’t tell you about one exhibit I saw at January’s American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting. The embargo lifted yesterday, when Microsoft announced its WorldWide Telescope project at the TED2008 conference in Monterey, California.

Imagine terabytes of astronomical imagery, ranging across the spectrum from radio waves to X-rays, seamlessly integrated and available in an easy-to-use interface. Pan left, right, up, down. Zoom in, merge different wavelengths, zoom some more — zoom down to the limit of the data.

“When the entire world's astronomy data is on the Internet and is accessible as a single distributed database, the Internet will be the world's best telescope,” observed Microsoft researcher Jim Gray in 2002. Now, 13 months after Gray disappeared on a solo boating trip, WorldWide Telescope is dedicated to him as it races toward its spring release date.

The presentation is simply gorgeous. But what makes WorldWide Telescope sing is the interface’s fluidity, which allows you to merge multiwavelength imagery from 10 different observatories — including the Hubble Space Telescope. That’s in part what brought a tear to the eye of tech blogger Robert Scoble: “It’s been a long while since Microsoft did something that had an emotional impact on me like that.” One key to this deft tool is its use of Microsoft’s Photosynth technology.

While I ogled the giant image of M31 and scanned poster papers at the AAS meeting, Microsoft’s Curtis Wong saw my ID badge and scooped me up. “You need to see this,” he said.

Wong’s partner, software engineer Jonathan Fay, was panning and zooming around the X-ray sky. As he passed over faint wisps from old supernova remnants, one object so compact and brilliant that I almost squinted came into view. A quick transition to optical wavelengths — ah, the Crab Nebula! — and then Fay zoomed into the data’s full resolution.

What’s important to remember is that this project grew from roots that run deep into the astrophysical community. Wong and Fay know it will interest amateur astronomers, educators, and techno-geeks. But it’s also designed as a research tool for professionals.

Here’s what we know at the moment: WorldWide Telescope will be available for free, but there’s no official release date yet, and it runs only on Windows. Wong and Fay have built it with an eye toward creating an active online community. It will run narrations and tours — some of which will be contributed by users, some by content partners.

I’ve been invited to participate in the software’s current “private alpha” testing, and frankly, I can’t wait. Expect I’ll have much more to say about this when the project launches.

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