The Internet as a (WorldWide) Telescope

What famous observatory has no lens and no mirror? Such research institutions weren't uncommon in centuries past - Claudius Ptolemy constructed such an observatory at Alexandria in the 2nd century, and in the 16th century, Tycho Brahe built Uraniborg ("the castle of Urania") and Stjerneborg ("star castle") to study the night sky. Now the modern age has its own version: the internet.

The wealth of astronomical data available online grows every day, collected from spacecraft such as Hubble, Spitzer, and Chandra, as well as smaller, groundbased observatories around the globe. And there's a portal through which anyone can access these data to view the universe in its multiwavelength glory: the WorldWide Telescope (WWT).

This software runs on almost any computer or tablet via its web browser. You can also download an application to your Windows desktop. The WorldWide Telescope accesses the internet's amazing treasure-trove to provide beautiful all-sky imagery at dozens of wavelengths, as well as detailed images of many celestial targets. In addition, it offers links to in-depth information about individual objects, using diverse databases ranging from Wikipedia to NASA's Astrophysics Data System, which holds all astronomical literature published since the 1800s. WWT basically functions as an interactive web browser for the sky, a sky browser of sorts. Oh, and it's free.

A Virtual Observatory Is Born

As the internet grew over the decades, astronomers used it mainly as a tool for remote observing, accessing both distant mountaintops and space satellites. But as web browsers became more powerful, and data exchange over the web became commmonplace, astronomers around the globe realized the potential 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 2001 the National Science Foundation awarded a large consortium of institutions an initial grant to create a framework that would eventually evolve into the Virtual Astronomical Observatory. Related virtual observatory efforts appeared around the world, especially in Europe and the UK.

The observatory's backbone was a semi-volunteer organization that created standards for all astronomical data to be entered into the database. The group was invisible to most practicing astronomers but critical for the virtual observatory's operations. For example, most astronomical images come in a FITS (Flexible Image Transport System) format. Virtual observatory standards put in place a decade ago allow astronomers to search, view, and exchange these images.

Today, in spite of funding woes worldwide and particularly in the U.S., the Virtual Observatory has created a set of free astronomical resources that are arguably more accessible and more coordinated than in any other field of science. But how can the public access those resources with an easy-to-use and powerful interface? Enter the WorldWide Telescope.