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WorldWide Telescope’s New Frontier
September 2, 2009 9:00 AM PT

Examine astronomical data in unprecedented detail. Take a Web tour of the universe. Explore the heavens in 3-D.

WorldWide Telescope keeps expanding its horizons.

On Aug. 17, the External Research division of Microsoft Research made public Aphelion, the latest release of WorldWide Telescope, the widely acclaimed, Windows-based application, launched in May 2008, that enables users to use their computers as a virtual telescope, gathering imagery from the world’s best ground- and space-based telescopes to provide a seamless exploration of the universe.

Derived from the Greek word “hēlios,” which means “sun,” an “aphelion” is the point in the orbit of a planet or comet when it is farthest from the sun—an apt metaphor for a release that represents the most advanced immersion technology available for those interested in pursuing in-depth astronomical research.

Desktop astronomers will find plenty to like in the Aphelion release, as well.

“We have a significant number of rich science features that are going to be available to researchers,” says Jonathan Fay, principal architect for the WorldWide Telescope project, “and we have a completely reworked data set for our beautiful, 3-D universe mode.”

In addition, the Web-client version of the application is moving from preview status into a full-fledged beta, bringing it to near parity with the Windows client.

Both scientists and amateur astronomers can take advantage of the scientific data available in the latest release of WorldWide Telescope.

WorldWide Telescope image
Scientists and amateur astronomers alike can use the data made available by the latest release of WorldWide Telescope.

But the heart of the latest release is the incorporation of an entire collection of science-quality data, which will be available not only to researchers, but also to the general public, for those amateurs who just can’t get enough—and there are plenty.

Users will be able to delve into hundreds of terabytes of images from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-ray Observatory Center, and Spitzer Space Telescope.

Previous WorldWide Telescope images came from surveys and studies from science institutions for public visualization.

“But now,” Fay says, “you’ll be able to take science-quality data and immediately visualize it. It could be used for scientific research on unpublished data. People can load files from their local machines, from research databases and catalogs, and see them in the sky. And you can use keywords like “Hubble” or “Chandra” and search for categories of objects and the imagery available for those areas.

“We’re enabling access to this huge database of scientific information. You potentially can go all the way to the raw data. It’s enabling research-quality data access.”

The Aphelion release, for example, could enable a researcher to search for data from the Hubble and collect and plot the results, which include information such as when an image was taken, the start and stop times of the exposure, how long the exposure lasted, and what instrument took it. You can find the part of the sky in which the image appears. And once a high-dynamic-range image is loaded, it can be manipulated in various ways.

“This allows astronomers to tease the details out of imagery,” Fay explains. “Once they have the imagery, they can exchange it with other astronomy applications, as well as take catalog data, plot it over the imagery, and use this to do research, test different ideas, find out where they want to look at things, look at spectra, look at all sorts of other detail.

“We’re taking all of this data that was formerly only available to pros with deep knowledge of the data, and we’re making it much more accessible to the whole world. If someone has enough interest in digging deeper, WorldWide Telescope now can go from just showing pretty pictures to connecting them to information all the way to the deepest level of data available. This is scaling from giving you an introduction to the universe to being able to dive deep into the fundamental data that scientists can access.”

3-D Universe

Not quite that committed? Don’t fret. Aphelion has its own special attraction for you, too: 3-D exploration.

“We’ve done a lot of data processing—with Johns Hopkins University, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and the Adler Planetarium—to create this view of the universe based upon data,” Fay says. “We can actually fly to various clusters and see all these individual galaxies. Up to a certain brightness magnitude, this is a fairly complete model, and each of these galaxies is put into its proper location. The galaxy types, their colors and patterns, are very close representatives of the actual images.”

The result—the product of invaluable collaboration with people like Mark SubbaRao from the Adler Planetarium, Miguel Aragon-Calvo of the Sloan survey, and Chris Lintott of Galaxy Zoo—offers a three-dimensional fly-through that enables WorldWide Telescope aficionados to tour the universe.

“Normal images are taken from Earth and are kind of flat, like they’re printed on a sphere,” Fay notes. “This release lets you break out of that spherical mold and fly to the individual clusters, orbit around them, and look at the galaxies within, see their relationships to each other, see the large-scale structure of the universe, how these sets of voids and filaments and walls create the structure of the universe.”

Work with the Galaxy Zoo was particularly valuable in that regard. The project included thousands of users who categorized each galaxy in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey based on its spatial orientation and morphology.

“We were able to take that data, along with the Sloan color data, and create a whole bunch of different templates,” Fay says, “of which we had the sizes of the galaxy correct, the morphology of the galaxy correct, the color of the galaxy correct, and its position in the sky correct.”

Such effort greatly expands the access WorldWide Telescope users get to journey through the cosmos.

A Multitude of Galaxies

“You’re able to go from looking at the solar system,” Fay says, “to go past our Milky Way to all of these galaxies. The Milky Way is just one of three-quarters of a million galaxies we have.”

And all it takes is an inexpensive pair of cardboard 3-D glasses.

"You don't have to have an expensive 3-D stereo display or electronic glasses to get a great 3-D experience,” Fay adds. “WorldWide Telescope even supports inexpensive paper 3-D glasses like the kind given out for use with movies and TV specials."

Because of current constraints on Web technology, the 3-D visualizations are not yet available in the Web-client version of the WorldWide Telescope, but just about everything else is.

“Most of the other functionality, including the science imagery, will be available,” says Fay, who adds that the Web client can be accessed on both the Windows and Mac platforms.

“We also have a Web control that lets other people embed WorldWide Telescope into their own Web sites,” he continues, “so they can build WorldWide Telescope functionality for Earth, the planets, the sky into their sites. And we have a fully documented software-development kit.”

The Aphelion release represents the first since the WorldWide Telescope project migrated to the External Research division, headed by Tony Hey, corporate vice president. The project has been incorporated into the organization’s Earth, Energy, and Environment pillar, directed by Dan Fay, who is not related to Jonathan but who shares a passion for enabling astronomical research.

“We’re trying to help scientists in the community who do science,” Jonathan Fay says. “We’re providing them with computer-science-oriented tools that can be joined with expertise—in this case, astronomy—but we’re also going to be moving into Earth visualization and planetary sciences.”

The goal, as always, is to augment the scientific community’s research with a robust environment of visualizations that encourage further insight and breakthroughs.

“We’re designing rich tools that combine computer science with these other sciences by providing Microsoft tools that can help them do the research in their fields,” Fay concludes. “We’re going for things that are really going to provide deep research insight.”