Galaxy Geeks: Amp up Your Astronomy Cred
By Jodi Mardesich
Want to discover a new comet or supernova? Well, you can apply for time on the Hubble Space Telescope. Sure it’s open to all applicants, but competition is fierce, and budget cuts are pretty much ruling out nonprofessionals. Another option? Access the database of the Hubble and other major telescopes through the Web.
New Internet technology offers you unprecedented access to images from space and makes your navigation from planet to star to nebula to galaxy feel something like a PC game. Free software downloads from Google and Microsoft go beyond traditional desktop astronomy applications. The downloads weave images together from ground- and space-based telescopes and allow you, in some cases, to package your own virtual space experience. Here’s a look at how Google Sky and Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope operate:
From Google Earth to Google Sky
Just as Google Earth allows you to change perspective from a satellite view of the entire Earth to a street view of your home, Google’s Sky enables you to study the night sky as it looks from your backyard or as it looks from another city (by name) or area (by latitude).
Access Sky by clicking on a tiny icon of Saturn in the Earth toolbar. You use the same keyboard or 3D navigational elements employed in Google Earth to zoom in on stars in other galaxies. You can zoom through a cluster of stars, hit a long patch of black space, then travel to the next cluster.
You can search for a celestial body by name or location using Right Ascension (RA) and declination (DEC) -- which are sky coordinates similar to longitude and latitude on Earth. Like Google Earth, Sky has several “layers” for changing your perspective on the subject. You can click on “imagery” to pull up photographic images from the Hubble Space Telescope or the Chandra X-ray Observatory. A “backyard astronomy” layer superimposes a map of the constellations perceptible from that location. Other layers include collections of images from major observatories on the Earth and in space, as well as historical sky maps.
Sky runs on PCs using Windows or Unix, or on the Apple Mac.
The WorldWide Telescope
WorldWide Telescope, developed by Microsoft’s Research arm, lets your computer behave as a virtual telescope. It weaves together images from different sources and layers on an interface that makes navigating seem more immediate and responsive, almost like a game, says Francis Reddy, former senior editor of Astronomy magazine. The interface helps you intuit the sky better than static desktop programs are able to do. But unlike Sky, WWT requires Windows. (Microsoft recommends Vista.)
If you do have Windows Vista, WWT offers different ways to look at images in the sky. You can choose to look at an optical view -- how something looks in visible light -- or check out an infrared ray or X-ray, or other wavelength snapshot. “Infrared radiation comes from stars being formed or places in the galaxy that are cooler,” says Jim O’Leary, director of the Davis Planetarium at the Maryland Space Center. “So you can see things you might not see in visible light.” A gamma ray view can record more energetic events taking place in the universe, such as galaxies exploding or quasars.
Astronomers have created “tours” you can click on to guide you through the viewing process and help you understand what you’re seeing. You can also create your own tours and share them with friends. “In some ways, it’s PowerPoint for astronomy,” Reddy says. “You can create presentations they call tours that are fairly sophisticated.” WWT lets you add audio narration, music and imported graphics to your tours and share them with friends through the WWT Community feature.
The vast universe
Both Google Sky and WorldWide Telescope give us an appreciation of the depth of the sky or the depth of the universe, O’Leary says. For example, many of us can identify the constellation Orion, and some of us can even see the faint nebula within it. With Sky, for example, you can see an earth-based photo of the nebula, then zoom in and see it as viewed from the Hubble Space Telescope. You can continue zooming well past the objects you can view in the night sky.
The Andromeda galaxy, a cigar-shaped smudge in the sky, at 2.5 million light years away, is the closest galaxy to our own, yet it’s so small you can blot it out with your fingertip held up to the sky, O’Leary says. Andromeda comprises billions of stars, and there are 50 to 100 billion more galaxies like it. These programs help us put the stars and our place in the universe in context. “They allow you to understand what the universe is made of,” O’Leary says.
Jodi Mardesich is a former staff writer for Fortune and the San Jose Mercury News. She has written about technology for 20 years and has been published in The New York Times, Slate, Salon, The Advocate, and Yoga Journal.
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