A Virtual Telescope
Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope is a powerful educational tool — a way of telling compelling stories about the Universe.
Published: June 24, 2008
Seven years ago, a graduate student and I were analyzing an unusual image of the gas jettisoned by a forming star, named PV Ceph, when we realized the image could best be explained if the young star were speeding across the sky ten times faster than normal. But confirming our hypothesis required us to spend two years accumulating, overlaying and analyzing many more images made using ground- and spacebased radio, infrared and optical telescopes.
Today, a project of this kind would be much easier thanks to the WorldWide Telescope, a rich, Web-based software application that anyone can download from www.worldwidetelescope.org. Released last month by Microsoft Research, the WorldWide Telescope stitches together images from the world’s best ground- and space-based telescopes to enable a seamless exploration of the Universe.
Think of it as a browser for the sky that allows users to view space at different wavelengths of light such as X-ray and infrared, illuminating hidden, often beautiful structures — supernova remnants, for example. The WorldWide Telescope also offers exciting new ways to study and teach about the Universe.
After downloading the software, users can easily navigate images of the Universe on their computer. Find the constellation Orion, for example, and center on the bright sword — the Orion Nebula. Zoom in and see swirling clouds of multicolored gas and dust. Zoom in further and you might spot a new star forming with its own baby solar system. Zoom out again and see that this emerging solar system is a tiny speck in a massive star-forming cloud which, itself, is a tiny sliver of light in the night sky.
The WorldWide Telescope is an example of the kind of basic research occurring in Microsoft Research labs around the world, including the newest lab in Cambridge. One particularly powerful feature enables educators and enthusiasts to produce planetariumlike “tours” that can demonstrate and explain phenomena such as black holes. For example, I designed a tour that explains how accumulations of space “dust” can collapse on themselves to create stars and planets. And a sixyear- old boy named Benjamin created an online tour of his favorite place in the Universe.
As more users add new tours and other information, the WorldWide Telescope will become an even more powerful teaching and learning tool. Already, users can click on any object to get additional information about it. But the software is so good that my colleagues and I at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics are looking for ways to add even richer data and tools for researchers.
Thanks to the WorldWide Telescope, we can now track down speeding stars like PV Ceph in days rather than years. And a growing number of astronomers — professionals and amateurs — can find new joy in exploring the skies.
Prof. Goodman is a scientific collaborator on the WorldWide Telescope project. The views expressed are hers and not those of Harvard University or any of its schools, units or officers..