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The Worldwide telescope May 13, 2008

Posted by dorigo in astronomy, computers, cosmology, internet, science.
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Jeff pointed out to me today the remarkable world wide telescope, a site where you can download a software created by Microsoft to browse the heavens as if you were commanding a powerful telescope. The constellations are not maps, but actual pictures, into which you can zoom as much as the images of the digital sky surveys (SDSS and others) allow.

My jaw dropped as I started using the software, which you can download and install on your computer, and which works pretty much like google Earth – downloading the region you are visualizing from the internet. A nice feature is the appearance of a frame of thumbnail pictures around the zoomed area, highlighting the most interesting celestial objects present there. If you click once on each pic the relevant object is highlighted on the map; clicking twice will allow you to download full-resolution image of the object directly from the online databases, including Hubble images.

What I find amazing, however, is the fact that browsing the night sky becomes a thrilling experience at your fingertips in front of the computer. The realism is perfect – these are pictures, in pure google earth style. However, while we never have the need to find a feature on the Earth surface by hovering over it in our real life, that is exactly what we do when we observe the night sky: so the learning experience provided by the program for a user who wants to get better at locating celestial objects is invaluable.

Above you can see a screenshot of part of the WWT window, which I centered on the Deer Lick group of galaxies – NGC7331, a milky way-like galaxy which is the largest member of the group, is on top. Below you can see Stephan’s quintet – a group of five small galaxies of 13th-14th magnitude which is among my favorite targets in deep-sky observing sessions. By zooming in (below), you get to see stars fainter than 18th magnitude, at a resolution comparable to that of  a meter-class instrument. Amazing!

I highly recommend downloading the software. Learning to locate objects will become a wonderful pastime!