WorldWide Telescope

What famous observatory is more important than any other, yet has no lens, and no mirror? Is it Claudius Ptolemy's at Alexandria in the 2nd century AD? Maybe Uraniborg or Stjerneborg built by Tycho Brahe using 1% of the GDP of Denmark in the the 16th century? Nope. The answer is a creation of the 20th century: the internet.

The ever-growing wealth of astronomical data available freely online literally holds answers to the mysteries of the Universe. The WorldWide Telescope is the telescope that lets any of us view the Universe using the internet as our observatory, to puzzle out those mysteries.

The WorldWide Telescope is a "Universe Information System" that runs either online in a web browser, or in Windows, on almost any computer. It accesses the internet's amazing treasure-trove of online data to provide beautiful all-sky imagery at dozens of wavelengths, as well as detailed images of deep sky objects, and other astrophyscially important targets. In addition, it offers links to deeper information about objects, through links to diverse databases including Wikipedia and NASA's Astrophysics Data System, which holds all of the professional Astronomical literature since the 1800's. Users of WorldWide Telescope (also known as WWT) can create, share, and experience "Tours" of the Sky and of a three-dimesional model of the known Unvierse by saving special paths through the program. And those Tours can have musical scores, be narrated, conatin added imagery, and hyperlinks. Just imagine WWT as a web-browser for the sky. A sky-browser of sorts. Oh, and it's free.

How the Internet Became an Observatory

When the internet first began to grow, astronomers thought of it mainly as a tool that would enable more "remote" observing, both on mountaintops and from space. But, then, as web browsers became more powerful, and data exchange over the web became commmonplace, astronomers around the globe realized the potential the web held for creating an online set of interconnected astronomical data and research tools that would ultimately offer the best "observatory" the world had ever seen. In the United States, the National Science Foundation awarded a large consortium of institutions an initial grant in 2001 to create what was then called the "Framework for the National Virtual Observatory." The "NVO" created in 2001 beacame the "Virtual Astronomical Observatory" in 2010, jointly funded by the NSF and NASA. Meanwhile, related Virtual Observatory efforts accelerated around the world, especially in Europe and the UK.

A good deal of the work in building a Virtual Observatory revolves around "standards" needed to make resources interoperate. A small group of people around the world find the creation and implementation of such standards fascinating, and they have happily formed a semi-volunteer organization called the "International Virtual Observatory," or "IVOA." The IVOA's work is invisible to most practicing astronomers, but it is important to appreciate how critical it is in allowing resources to inter-operate. For example, some amateur astronomers will be familiar with the "FITS" format for images. It is IVOA standards that allow for those FITS images to be searched for, viewed, and exchanged within the many search tools and software packages that even just one astronomer might use. The work of the IVOA is not unlike that of ICANN or the W3C, which are similarly critical, and also near-invisible, bodies that enable the functioning of the internet we all use everyday.

Today, in spite of funding woes worldwide, but particularly in the US, a worldwide set of astronomical resources that enable "virtual" observing are out there, and are arguably more accessible, freely available, and coordinated than in any other field of science. The trick is to access these resources with an easy-to-use and powerful tool. Enter the WorldWide Telescope.

The Universe Project becomes WorldWide Telescope

The Worldwide Telescope was started by amateur astronomer Curtis Wong (and Microsoft Researcher) who grew up in Los Angeles with a deep desire to explore the night sky to see the Milky Way, nebula and galaxies as they were in magazines like Sky and Telescope. Of course between the city lights and the smog, all he could see with his 60mm refractor were the moon, a few planets and nebulae. What he really wanted was a gigantic telescope with a dark sky and a Harvard astronomer by his side to guide and explain what he was looking at.

Curtis was an interactive media producer creating some of the first CD-ROM’s such as Multimedia Beethoven in 1991. He started a new CD-ROM project called John Dobson’s Universe with guided tours by Dobson explaining deep sky objects in the context of a zoomable night sky featuring the beautiful constellation imagery of Akira Fuji and object imagery from multiple sources. Unfortunately funding for that project got cancelled but Wong continued to think about how it could be done with the emergence of the World Wide Web.

By 2000, Curtis was at Microsoft Research where he worked with big data computer scientist Jim Gray and astronomer Alex Szalay from Johns Hopkins. Jim had previously created Terasever, a website which aggregated satellite imagery of the Earth and it allowed anyone to zoom into almost anywhere to see ground detail. This was available many years before Keyhole developed its technology which Google acquired to become Google a Earth.

Jim and Alex were working on the data pipeline and query processing for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey as well as making that data widely available to astronomers and the public through a website called SkyServer which was the next incarnation of Teraserver but pointed up. Curtis worked on designing Skyserver and realized that all the elements were finally becoming available to create his astronomy project. He attended a Kavli workshop at The University of Chicago called The Visualization of Astrophysical data and presented his vision for the Universe Project.(link to workshop site with the PowerPoint presentation) Many of the participants, including Harvard Astronomer Alyssa Goodman, volunteered to help advise on access to other sources of imagery and data.

Jonathan Fay, an extraordinary software architect and amateur astronomer himself had done work on 3D graphics, tiled multi resolution image rendering and media authoring, built the first zooming prototype of the Sloan imagery within a few hours. Over the course of two years the project was completed with Curtis designing the experience and Jonathan developing technical architecture and code, and assistance from others to handle the myriad of tasks managing the imagery, testing, hosting, site development and deployment.

WorldWide Telescope had its first preview at the 2008 TED Conference as introduced by Roy Gould, science education expert at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

WorldWide Telescope is an astrometrically correct 3D model of the Universe populated by the highest resolution imagery from ground and space based telescopes. It features a seamless visible light view (based on imaging from the Digitized Sky Survey) of the night sky that is a trillion pixels in size, allowing users to zoom from a 60 degree wide field view of the Milky Way to a close up view of features as tiny as the wisps of the Veil nebula. WWT also has 85 different multispectral sky views that are all precisely registered to allow for cross fading between them. The 3D simulation of the Solar System allows you to simulate eclipses as viewed from the ground or from space. You can fly to the Moon to see the high resolution Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter imager texture mapped on a high resolution digital elevation mapped surface of the moon. Travel to Mars and you can fly through Valles Marinaras. Turn on the asteroids and you can see each of the 500,000 tracked by the NEO center. Zoom out from the solar system into the Hipparcos catalog and fly through the 100,000+ stars in our neighborhood and keep going through the million Sloan galaxies to see the large scale structure of the Universe. Right-clicking on a Sloan galaxy, like any object in WWT, will reveal deeper information on that object such as red shift, spectra, and lots of other data from multiple sources on the Web.

Anything in WWT can be included in a so-called guided tour which looks like a video with narration, music, text, graphics and hyperlinks. A tour has the distinct advantage over video in that a tour is interactive at ANY time. When paused, the user is in the environment and free to zoom closer into a detail, or switch see what that object looks like in other wavelengths, find more information or branch off on another related tour.

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