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Once in a while we are faced with a particular use of technology that changes how we interact with the world around us, but it’s not often that we find technology to help imagine what it’s like to travel through space and understand the universe beyond our world. Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope does just that.

WorldWide Telescope is actually a project that has a lot of sentimental value to a lot of people at Microsoft. The project was being developed by Jim Gray, researcher and manager of Microsoft Research’s Science Group, when he got lost sailing from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, to the Farallon Islands and was never found again. WorldWide Telescope was donated, in his honor, free of charge to the scientific community and to anyone who enjoys exploring space.

I have to admit it, I was very skeptical at first. I am an astronomy buff who has been burned many times before by software that promised to help me understand a particular star cluster or navigate the gorgeous clouds in the Orion Nebula. Time and time again I have been disappointed, so expectations were very low.

My first surprise was with the source of materials. WorldWide Telescope has managed to gather images from most major sources and formats in the world and has literally created a giant 3 dimensional map of the visible universe in amazing satellite images, as well as gamma rays, microwave background, x-ray images and much, much more. You can view any section you pick as a panorama that can be rotated, focus only on planets or moons, or watch our own planet at night from a bird’s eye view.

travel through space

The second, even more exciting surprise is that for the first time, I didn’t have to try to make sense of the information alone. Almost every topic and interest has tours through space which are guided by world famous astronomers. You can learn about “Space Dust and US” from Alyssa Goodman or “Search for Extra Solar Planets” with David Charbonneau, both from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Or how about a “Walkthrough of the Landings of the Apollo Missions” or a trip to the “Center of the Milky Way” with Doug Roberts from the Adler Planetarium Astronomy Museum? And if you are so inclined, you can create your own tour to share with friends. It’s as easy as creating a PowerPoint Document.


travel through space

And the fun doesn’t end there. Resources about any part of space are available with one click, so you can read about what you are looking at as you explore it, search for particular terms and find guided explanations of most things you could have questions about. WorldWide Telescope also allows you to configure your experience to view space exactly as what you want to study it if you are an astronomer, but also allows people who just like looking at stars, to have fun traveling around aimlessly.

You can join communities and get access to their own tours and documents or even connect your own telescope to WorldWide Telescope.

Now, WorldWide Telescope is obviously not the only program that can be used to view space. Google Sky has attempted to give us a view of the universe that emulates its Google Earth, but it pales in comparison. Many other open source and paid programs have attempted (and failed) to do what WorldWide Telescope does so well.

travel through space

So take a break from the problems of this world and lose yourself around Cassiopeia explosions, exploring the rings of Saturn or traveling through the clouds of a stellar nursery to watch some stars being born. It can help make your problems seem a little bit smaller in comparison.

Have a favorite spot in outer space? Share it with us. I’d love to go visit it.

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