WorldWide Telescope Puts Wonders of Space on a PC

REDMOND, Wash. – March 24, 2009 –To skim the surface of Mars, fly through the Andromeda galaxy, or peer down at a dark earth jeweled with the lights of its cities – all of that seems impossibly out of reach to the average person, not to mention scientists.

But since May 2008, it has been more than possible. It has been easy. That is when Microsoft Research released the public beta of WorldWide Telescope, a startlingly powerful piece of downloadable desktop software that allows people to quit simply staring at the night sky and instead zoom through it, visiting planets, constellations, even nearby galaxies.

Jonathan Fay looks out over Los Angeles from the Griffith Observatory. Curtis Wong, who worked with Fay to develop WorldWide Telescope, calls Fay a “rock star” developer and said “there are maybe five people in the world that have all the skills he does.”

That people really, really want to do that has been made clear by WorldWide Telescope’s popularity. Since its release, nearly 2 million people around the world have downloaded the free desktop observatory. PC World called World Wide Telescope a “phenomenal resource for enthusiasts, students, and teachers,” and tech blogger Robert Scoble called it “the most fabulous thing I’ve seen Microsoft do in years.”

All of which has been gratifying for Curtis Wong, a principal researcher with Microsoft Research, and Jonathan Fay, a principal research software design engineer, also with Microsoft Research. They drove the creation of Worldwide Telescope, and with their team continue to enrich the telescope’s visuals and add features.

Fay in particular is working to make the program useful to schools, museums and planetariums by adding viewing options that would allow the telescope to be projected onto a low-cost dome for 3-D immersion into the universe. The team just announced that PC and Mac users can now use a Web version of the telescope without installing it. In addition, the team is releasing versions about every three months, and continue to “push the limits of technology to help professional astronomer, teachers and students of all ages explore the sky,” Fay said.

Worldwide Telescope also got a boost March 24 with the news that National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Microsoft are developing technology that will make the most interesting NASA content — including high-resolution scientific images and data from Mars and the moon — explorable on WorldWide Telescope,

A match made for the stars

The partnership of Wong and Fay has been an Astaire/Rogers-like convergence of enthusiasm, talent, and opportunity. Both have a long-abiding personal passion for astronomy. Wong minored in astronomy as an undergraduate at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Fay even built and operates an observatory at his house. Plus they have the technical chops to pull off a complex piece of software development such as WorldWide Telescope. Wong calls Fay a “rock star” developer, and said “there are maybe five people in the world that have all the skills he does.” 

Wong gives credit for the birth of the project to Jim Gray, a database pioneer and Microsoft technical fellow who disappeared while sailing in January 2007 and was never found.

Gray helped develop SkyServer with Alex Szalay, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the Johns Hopkins University. SkyServer gave the public free, online access to the growing catalog of galaxy data being gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and other resources.

In 2001, the same year SkyServer went live, the two published a paper called “The World-Wide Telescope” in Science magazine. The title of that article would become the name of Microsoft’s new desktop observatory, in honor of Gray and Szalay. Gray gave a talk at Microsoft called “Databases Meet Astronomy,” where he met Wong. Shortly after the talk, Wong sent Gray a PowerPoint presentation that discussed how he thought he could add to SkyServer.

Meanwhile, Fay was development manager for MSN HomeAdvisor, and wondering what would happen if the technology in Microsoft’s TerraServer was turned inside out – instead of detailed terrain view of the earth, what if there could be such a view of the sky?

Gray, Szalay, Wong, Fay and others pooled their expertise and enthusiasm into creating the first version of WorldWide Telescope, which was shown at the 2007 Microsoft TechFest shortly after Gray’s disappearance.

Now available in three dimensions

WorldWide Telescope now has 25 terabytes of data and imagery in the “cloud” – huge Microsoft data centers that make it possible to access tremendous amounts of data from nearly anywhere. For comparison, one terabyte will hold about 1,000 copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Additionally, Fay also has implemented three-dimensional viewing. Users with anaglyph glasses (which convert side-by-side images into a single stereoscopic image) can fly through the large-scale structure of the universe, the valleys of Mars, or the panoramas from the Mars rovers – all in 3-D. Users also can create and take any number of intergalactic tours hosted by astronomers, educators, or students, Wong said. 

WorldWide Telescope incorporates images and data from the best ground- and space-based observatories to allow users to explore the night sky.

The WorldWide Telescope team continues to establish relationships with educators and scientists all over the world, and to localize telescope data. The small team has built an application that allows local universities to translate WorldWide Telescope’s interface into different languages, starting with Chinese.

“Basically what that allows you to do…if you have a user in Australia, you don’t want all of the requests for information from Australia to have to go all the way around the world,” Fay said. “So someone at a university there can host a mirror with a good portion of the core data…and get high performance.”

Since its release, WorldWide Telescope also has been nominated for two awards—the Edison Award and an American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) award. The Edison Awards “symbolize the persistence and excellence personified by Thomas Alva Edison,” recognizing ingenuity, innovation, and creativity in the global economy. The award is presented on April 1. The AIGA’s annual awards recognize the year’s best work “across all disciplines of communication design and strategy.” The AIGA award will be given out later this spring.

Wong said Gray, known for being a mentor to many successful people in computer science and technology, would have been please to see how WorldWide Telescope is exciting young people about science and space. Shortly before the release of WorldWide Telescope Wong recalls, he saw a graph of the number of college students registering for majors and careers in science. “It looked like graphs of the stock market lately,” he says. “It was headed down in a big way. We really need something that will get kids excited about science and space, and we were really inspired that WorldWide Telescope is being used to address that.”

Indeed, Fay’s daughter came home from school one day and told him her teacher was using WorldWide Telescope. “They used it on the overhead display in the classroom,” he says. “It’s interesting to find out that my own daughter is benefitting from the educational side of this.”

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