Gazing Through Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope

5/30/08Follow @wroush

I was 13 years old when Carl Sagan’s 13-part PBS miniseries Cosmos appeared in 1980. I was so hypnotized by the combination of Sagan’s storytelling, Jon Lomberg’s space art, and Vangelis’s music that I decided to become an astronomer. I saved up to buy a telescope—an Edmund Scientific Astroscan, a fantastic beginner’s instrument that is still available today, and for only $10 more than I paid all those years ago—and spent many happy nights stargazing from my family’s backyard in rural Michigan.

I had to abandon my astronomical ambitions about seven years later when, as a sophomore at Harvard, I discovered that I wasn’t nearly as good at math and physics as I had thought. But it was okay. By that time I had realized that it wasn’t Sagan’s profession that fascinated me so much as his way of describing it. The science was obviously key to Cosmos, but I think the show’s success—it’s the most-watched series in the history of public broadcasting—was rooted mainly in its stylish, sophisticated, friendly presentation, which I still try to emulate as a writer. Sagan, who was also one of Johnny Carson’s most frequent guests on The Tonight Show, never talked down to viewers; he took them along on a journey through his own unique picture of the evolution of the universe and the history of science. (Indeed, the subtitle for Cosmos was “A Personal Voyage.”)

Sagan died of complications from myelodysplasia in 1996. But if he were alive today, I bet he’d be filming a testimonial for a remarkable new piece of software from Microsoft called WorldWide Telescope. If Google Earth is a “virtual globe,” allowing you to spin the planet to any location and zoom in on detailed topographical data and satellite images, WorldWide Telescope is a “virtual planetarium,” allowing you to pan across the celestial sphere and zoom in on thousands of stars, galaxies, nebulae, and other objects as recorded by the world’s most powerful ground- and space-based telescopes. I’ve been exploring the free Windows program since its beta launch on May 13, and I like it in part because it has so many of the features that made Cosmos a hit, including amazing graphics, entertaining narratives, and an expansive view of, well, the entire cosmos. Yet despite the enormous depth of the data behind it, the program has a simple, enticing message: “Explore with me.”

The Eagle Nebula, as seen in Microsoft’s WorldWide TelescopeThe program is the creation of a small team at Microsoft Research, including Curtis Wong, manager of the lab’s Next Media group, and developer Jonathan Fay. Wong’s work has turned up in this column before: he was also the producer of A Passion for Art, a 1995 interactive CD-ROM about the Barnes Foundation museum in Philadelphia. Wong might be called the Carl Sagan of multimedia: he’s an amateur astronomer himself, and his understanding of interactive platforms, along with his zeal for educating and informing people through technology, is all over this program. The name itself, WorldWide Telescope, comes from a 2002 paper by Jim Gray, another Microsoft researcher who was the main force behind TerraServer and SkyServer, two digital-sky projects that were the current program’s direct ancestors. Tragically, Gray went missing last year while on a solo sailing trip to the Farallon Islands outside San Francisco Bay.

I won’t try to describe WorldWide Telescope in detail; Ogle Earth and Ars Technica have thorough reviews. I’ll just mention the two aspects of the program that wowed me the most. One is the seamlessness of the interface. You can pull back far enough to see a 60-degree-wide swath of the sky—about as much as you could take in with the naked eye, if you were standing outside at night—then, using your mouse’s scroll wheel or the arrow keys, you can zoom in until the screen covers 1 second of arc or 1/3600th of a degree, about the size of the smallest features visible in pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope.

In between those two extremes, there are thousands of interesting objects to look at, from the Milky Way to the Pleiades star cluster to the aptly named Sombrero Galaxy to the amber plumes of the Eagle Nebula, made famous by pictures from the Hubble. (Click on the screen shots on this page to see larger versions.) Moving between these objects is as easy as zooming out, panning, and zooming back in. In fact, the program’s simplicity reminds me why I loved my Astroscan—a Newtonian reflector that is amateur astronomy’s equivalent of a point-and-shoot Polaroid camera. The homely little telescope is built in the shape of a sphere and rests inside a cup-like holder, so that you can rotate it to view any object in the sky without having to fiddle with a complicated tripod mount. WorldWide Telescope is like that—just point and go.

The surface of Mars, as seen in Microsoft’s WorldWide TelescopeBut the fact that the program aggregates data from so many different sources, such as the Hubble, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, means that the “view” you’ll get using WorldWide Telescope is far better than what’s possible with the Astroscan—or any other physical telescope, for that matter. It’s so much better, in fact, that I worry a little about whether people who have the software will ever bother to go outside to look at the actual sky. But ultimately, I believe that’s a small concern. By making astronomical imagery so accessible, WorldWide Telescope is likely to generate a new crop of young amateur astronomers who want to witness the sky’s wonders for themselves—even if the Orion Nebula that they see through their two-inch refracting telescope is a fuzzy white blob compared to the lacy, multicolored Hubble images the program provides.

Ideally, kids who try out WorldWide Telescope will have a teacher or parent to help them explore (just as I had a mentor, my high-school physics teacher, when I was learning my own way around the sky—thanks Mr. Cartwright!). But to enhance its value as a learning tool, with or without a teacher present, Wong and Fay have provided a guided-tour function—which is the second thing that really impressed me about the program. These tours can be as simple as a series of stops in the sky—the seven most interesting spiral galaxies, for example—or as elaborate as PowerPoint slide shows, complete with music, narration, titles, and superimposed images. About 40 different tours are available from WorldWide Telescope’s top-level menu, and more are being created and uploaded every day, thanks to the program’s built-in authoring tools.

It seems churlish to criticize something as marvelous as WorldWide Telescope. But as long as Microsoft Research is giving stuff away for free, I might as well register a few requests. First, the Next Media group really ought to reach out to the creative community by building a Mac version of the program. This may be out of the question, considering that the nuts and bolts of the interface are based on a proprietary Microsoft platform called the Visual Experience Engine. But the more guided tours users create, the more people will want to access them, and it will be sad if Mac users are cut off from this bounty.

The nebula Pismis 24, as seen in Microsoft’s WorldWide TelescopeThere’s also a need for stronger online communities around WorldWide Telescope—places where users can easily upload and share the tours they’ve created, the same way Google Earth users can share KML layers containing their own tours and images or 3-D modelers can contribute models they’ve built using SketchUp to Google’s 3-D Warehouse. The program’s top-level menu includes a “Community” tab, but there aren’t many actual communities yet, and those that do exist, such as Astronomy magazine’s community, don’t seem to include any user-generated tours. But I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before WorldWide Telescope users form their own online clearinghouses.

By the way, don’t be put off by the system requirements for WorldWide Telescope. Microsoft says that for the best experience, you should have a Vista machine with a 2-gigahertz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2 gigabytes of RAM, and a 3D graphics card with 256 megabytes of RAM. I’m sure the program would run like a flash on a system like that. But I’ve had little trouble running it on my 4-year-old Dell Windows XP laptop, which has a 1.5-gigahertz Pentium M processor, a measly 256 megabytes of RAM, and an Nvidia GEForce video card with only 64 megabytes of RAM.

To me, the most astonishing thing about WorldWide Telescope and its spiritual cousin, Google Earth, is that they let average Internet users play with databases far larger and more detailed than anything professional astronomers, earth scientists, or spymasters could access as recently as a decade ago. Not only that, but the data is all free, and the programs’ builders encourage users to make new things with it and add their own layers of information. It’s only a matter of time until some 13-year-old uses WorldWide Telescope to produce her own version of Cosmos. I’ll be waiting.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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