Page last updated at 10:12 GMT, Tuesday, 13 May 2008 11:12 UK

Virtual telescope opens night sky

Orion Nebula
The tool contains "terabytes" of data from observatories

Twirling galaxies, exotic nebulae and exploding stars are now just a mouse click away for amateur astronomers.

Microsoft has launched WorldWide Telescope, a free tool that stitches together images from some of the best ground- and space-based telescopes.

Collections include pictures from the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes, as well as the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

The web-based tool also allows users to pan and zoom around the planets, and trace their locations in the night sky.

"Users can see the X-ray view of the sky, zoom into bright radiation clouds, and then cross-fade into the visible light view and discover the cloud remnants of a supernova explosion from a thousand years ago," explained Roy Gould, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

"[It's] a beautiful platform for explaining and getting people excited about astronomy, and I think the professional astronomers will come to use it as well," said Roy Williams of the California Institute of Technology

Detailed view

To use the new system, users need to download WorldWide Telescope from the web. It only runs on Windows operating systems.

Microsoft Worldwide Telescope Screengrab
Users can explore the Moon and selected planets in more detail

The web portal gives star-gazers access to "terabytes" of data. It allows them to explore planets, moons and other celestial objects and track their precise position in the sky from any location on Earth, "at any time in the past or future".

Data from sources including the US space agency Nasa allows users to switch between views at different wavelengths and through different telescopes.

Nasa contributed imagery from its Mars Rovers, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Around 30 images from Chandra are available through the program including X-ray data and multi-wavelength composite photographs.

Other data sets include the ongoing Sloan Digital Sky Survey, also known as the Cosmic Genome Project, which aims to capture detailed optical images of more than a quarter of the night sky.

WorldWide Telescope, launched as a beta, or test version, also features tours of the Universe by leading astronomers, as well as the ability for a user to record their own.


2GHz or faster processor
2GB of RAM
1-10GB of free disk space
Graphics card with 128 MB RAM or 256 VRAM
Windows XP Service Pack 2 or Windows Vista
Net connection
Macs must run Windows OS

A tour called Dust and Us by Alyssa Goodman, professor of astronomy at Harvard, walks through the dark regions in galaxies where stars and planets form.

"I see the WorldWide Telescope as having an important educational mission," said Robert Kirshner, professor of astronomy at Harvard University.

"[It] gives somebody a kind of freedom to follow their imagination."

Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman, described it as a "powerful tool for education" and said he hoped it would "inspire young people to explore astronomy and science".

Stellar options

Microsoft's new application is not the only tool that allows astronomers to explore the night sky from their computers.

Stellarium screengrab
Stellarium is an open source alternative to Microsoft's offering
Last year, Microsoft rival Google launched Sky, an add-on to Google Earth which allows astronomers to glide through images of more than one million stars and 200 million galaxies.

Optional layers allow users to explore images from the Hubble Space Telescope as well as animations of lunar cycles.

Other applications have been available for longer.

For example, Stellarium is a free open source tool that gives people a chance to access more than 210 million stars, in addition to planets and moons.

Used in many planetariums the project was launched in 2001 by Fabien Chereau, formerly a research engineer at the Paris Astronomical Observatory who now works at the ESO (European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere).

Like WorldWide Telescope the software allows users to record and play their own tours of the Universe.

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