Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope Brings The Universe To Your Fingertips

The Microsoft Research team is building an epic map of the universe using data and photographs collected from the many telescopes around the world, including NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. They call it The WorldWide Telescope.

There are roughly 300 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, and about the same number of galaxies in our universe (give or take a couple). With the WorldWide Telescope, scientists and developers have pieced together a detailed 3D view of the universe that lets a user do a fly by of any planet, star or galaxy known to man. You can even view the entire universe in a single frame, which makes us all seem insanely insignificant.

But the WorldWide Telescope is more than just a neat exploration tool for astronomy and physics nerds. Program Director Dan Fay hopes NASA can use it as a research tool and that students from the elementary to graduate levels can use it as an educational resource. The Microsoft Research team has made it simple to manipulate data on a touch surface or desktop. With the touch of a couple of buttons and pinch to zoom, you’re off and flying through the universe. The team plans to bring this magic to mobile devices soon.

Microsoft has also released an API to allow developers to build custom tours and lessons. I was fortunate enough to be given a tour of the nebula of the Milky Way Galaxy, and admittedly it was beautiful. The lessons can be as simple as a fly by of every planet in our solar system, or as complicated as analyzing photographs of the deepest known space objects. The map also lets you look at any part of the sky in a number of light wavelengths, including infrared and X-ray.

WorldWide Telescope

After the demo, I took a tour of a scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is due to launch in 2018. The telescope is about 100 times more powerful than Hubble and about seven times as big. It includes a 21-foot reflective mirror and a slew of instruments to study the sky.

NASA hopes to look through dust clouds surrounding the formation of stars using the onboard infrared instruments to finally see how stars are born and to look far enough through the universe that they will get a better sense of how all of this madness is shaped. It will also be able to detect water vapor in atmospheres outside our solar system, and where there is water, there’s a significant chance at life.

(mind = blown).