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Worldwide Telescope

Microsoft's free WorldWide Telescope brings Windows users up close to the universe

Seattle Times technology reporter

WorldWide Telescope
MICROSOFT RESEARCH has created a downloadable

astronomy program that stitches together images from the world's biggest telescopes to form an interactive map of the universe. The free software is available for download from Here are some minimum requirements:

Operating system: Windows XP with SP2, or higher. Can run on Mac with Windows installed

Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo, 2 gigahertz or faster, recommended

Memory, storage: 1 gigabyte of RAM, (2 gigs is better) and at least 1 gigabyte of hard drive space.

Graphics, monitor: 3-D accelerated card with 128 megabytes of RAM and XGA or higher-resolution monitor

Internet connection: 56 kilobits per second, or higher.

Source: Microsoft

Microsoft Research is launching a free application today that lets people navigate deep into the universe and view galaxies, nebulae, planets and other celestial objects through the lenses of the world's best observatories.

The WorldWide Telescope draws on more than 12 terabytes of imagery — bigger than the print collection of the Library of Congress — from several orbiting and land-based telescopes.The desktop application downloads the images on demand and stitches them together to form an interactive, browsable universe supplemented with information from top astronomical databases and guided tours that put it all into context.

The project was the dream of Curtis Wong, a Microsoft researcher who collected bottles as a kid in Los Angeles to earn money for a first telescope. He recalled reading about the Milky Way but being frustrated because he could never see it between the smog and the city lights.

The WorldWide Telescope makes up for that in spades, giving people a perspective that has even veterans in the field excited.

Michael Bakich, senior editor of Astronomy Magazine, called it "fantastic" and praised the program's "highly detailed, accurate model of the sky."

"Nothing to this extent has been done," said Bakich, who has been using a preview version of the software. "... I just think people are going to fall in love with it."

From the first printed star atlases of the Renaissance to desktop planetarium software in the 1980s to the totally Web-based Google Sky — which offers access to some of the same images as the WorldWide Telescope — scientists and technologists have explored ways to document the night sky and objects in deep space.

Wong said the WorldWide telescope addresses the challenge with the proliferation of astronomical images available to the public today.

"You don't really get the larger context of these images," he said. "They're beautiful, but you don't know where they are, how big they are and what the other larger story is around them."

Wong has spent his career working on interactive media, starting with early CD-ROMs on Beethoven, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Leonardo da Vinci, among others.

"All of them were these environments where we bring together story, exploration and source information to develop ... a framework to learn in a deep and substantive way," Wong said.

Elements of community

The WorldWide Telescope refines the model and adds elements of community and social media that characterize so-called Web 2.0 applications.

One of the most powerful features lets astronomers, educators or any user create tours of the sky that other people can follow and rate.

In one tour that highlights the program's breadth of resources, Robert Hurt of the Spitzer Space Telescope explores the "Exploding Cigar Galaxy." Hurt narrates over spacey rock music as the viewer moves from a line drawing of the Ursa Major constellation through 12 million light years into space to M82, as the galaxy is technically known.

As the tour continues, the distant galaxy comes into brilliant focus. An image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows it in the visible light spectrum. It resembles an exploding cigar but is actually a disk seen from the side. Red filaments of hot, hydrogen gas extend above and below the galaxy.

Hurt asks, "What's causing this gassy fireworks display?"

The tour switches to images from the Chandra X-ray Observatory to answer that question. Beautiful, glowing pastel colors fill the screen as Hurt explains the images, from the high-energy end of the spectrum.

"These X-rays originate from million-degree gas in M82, heated by violent star-forming activity, known as a starburst," he says.

Next, red clouds appear as the tour switches again to the Spitzer Telescope, which captures images in the infrared spectrum.

A huge dust halo, more than 20,000 light years across, surrounds the galaxy.

"This dust is made of organic compounds similar to those found in car exhaust or on a barbecue grill. The cigar is indeed smoking," Hurt says. "... When we combine the X-ray, visible infrared views from Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer, we see this tortured galaxy in a way the human eye never could."

At any time during the tour, people can pause, look around at nearby objects or view additional images and get more data on what they're seeing.

Support from Gates

Wong said the project got support within Microsoft all the way up to Chairman Bill Gates. The astronomy community, not surprisingly, has strongly supported the effort as well, he said.

Wong hopes the WorldWide Telescope will help scientists who are rushing to keep pace with the huge amount of data generated by improved telescope and imaging technology.

By letting more people look at these images, he said, the program could get "citizen scientists involved in the process of discovery."

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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