By DEBORAH GAGE
San Francisco Chronicle
May 14, 2008
The virtual service combines images and databases from every major telescope and astronomical organization in the world.
Microsoft says it is providing the resource for free in memory of Jim Gray, the Microsoft researcher who disappeared last year while sailing his boat to the Farallon Islands on a trip to scatter his mother's ashes. The project is an extension of Gray's work.
"I never imagined (the telescope) would be so beautiful," said Alexander Szalay, an astronomy professor at Johns Hopkins University who worked with Gray on astronomy projects for more than a decade.
Gray was an expert in databases, and he came to be accepted as "a card-carrying member" of the astronomical community for his work in bringing astronomical data online, Szalay said.
Point your cursor at a constellation, and the telescope will load all the objects near it and display them across the bottom of the screen. Pick one, and you'll be taken to it. Zoom in and out, view it through filters of different wavelengths -- an infrared view, say, or x-ray -- and right-click to pull up its name and more detail. Track the object's location in the sky -- its ascension and declension -- at the bottom right corner of your screen.
Seeing objects in relation to each other is useful even for astronomers, Szalay said. "They are used to looking at (singular) images, but ... not beyond to the whole."
The worldwide telescope is part of a much larger scientific project. A special version is being developed for astronomers, and it's being considered as one way to visualize data in the Virtual Observatory, a project by the National Science Foundation to integrate all astronomical data online.
But Microsoft's goal is to appeal to amateur astronomers, teachers and kids, people who might never get a chance to look at the Milky Way through a telescope as large and prestigious as the Hubble or the Chandra.
Similar astronomy projects exist, including Google Sky and a predecessor to the online telescope called SkyServer that Gray and Szalay helped build.
But the worldwide telescope goes beyond these, Szalay said, because of the "artistry" that people at Microsoft Research brought to the project.
The person most responsible for the telescope's interface is Curtis Wong, who joined Microsoft after a career developing multimedia CD-ROMs, interactive books and an online art exhibit that was backed by Intel, one of his previous employers.
Wong has more than 45 patents pending in interactive television and similar areas, but astronomy is a passion.
Growing up in Los Angeles, he didn't see the Milky Way until he was a teenager and got far enough away from the city lights to see the night sky on a trip to the mountains with the local astronomical society. A meteor landed near him and lit up the ground, leaving a trail of smoke.
"I was totally blown away by how many stars there were," he said.
Wong has created introductory tours of the worldwide telescope and also provided tools so people can make and share their own tours. Several organizations, including Astronomy Magazine and Sky & Telescope, are growing online communities connected to the telescope, and he expects to see more of those.
"People have been looking at the sky since it existed, but there's been no way to share that," he said. "Anybody can go in (to the telescope) and tell a story or share their favorite places."
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