Inspiring Budding Asian Astronomers
February 10, 2011 1:00 PM PT

A Microsoft Research Asia-sponsored competition in China might help lead to the creation of a new generation of Chinese astronomers.

The WorldWide Telescope Universe Tour Competition was completed late last year in Beijing, with an awards ceremony at the Beijing Planetarium. It attracted 194 teams, from across China, that used WorldWide Telescope to create presentations aimed at popularizing the science of astronomy and showcasing the capabilities of WorldWide Telescope as a tool both educational and inspirational.

The competition took advantage of the capabilities of WorldWide Telescope, a visualization software environment that enables a personal computer to act as a virtual telescope. It combines the best ground- and space-based imagery with a deep knowledge base to enable users to explore space from a desktop.

WorldWide Telescope’s you-are-there immediacy was a key factor in making the Universe Tour Competition a success, says Jenny Jing, project manager for the competition.

“In China, very few people have the expensive equipment needed to look at the sky,” she says. “With WorldWide Telescope, people can use software to visualize the universe, so people in universities and even in middle schools can use it to visualize the sky with great ease. And a teacher in a class that does not have expensive telescope equipment can use WorldWide Telescope to look at the sky and give students very complete astronomical knowledge.”

Viewing a Solar Eclipse

WorldWide Telescope was introduced to the Chinese public in 2008 during the Microsoft Research Asia Faculty Summit. In 2009, Microsoft Research Asia collaborated with the National Astronomical Observatories of China (NAOC) on a project to expose people in China to the wonders of a spectacular solar eclipse that took place on July 22 of that year. It was the longest solar eclipse that will occur in the 21st century and was visible across much of China.

Poster for Microsoft Research Asia's WorldWide Telescope competition
The poster for Microsoft Research Asia's WorldWide Telescope competition.

Microsoft Research Asia developed a multisite, multichannel live broadcast of the solar eclipse, in conjunction with the Chinese Astronomical Society and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In addition to a live broadcast of several different settings where the eclipse was visible, WorldWide Telescope was used to simulate the event, and that simulation was picked up by television stations in case poor weather prevented direct observation. Millions of viewers viewed the simulation of the eclipse.

Microsoft Research Asia then re-joined NAOC and the Popularization Work Committee of the Chinese Astronomy Union to sponsor the competition, which lasted three months. Competitors were encouraged to combine WorldWide Telescope images with their own scientific knowledge to create entries that would encourage public interest in astronomy. The idea was to support “citizen science,” as well as e-science, which is performed by exploring massive quantities of data across distributed networks.

Each competitor or team was eligible to submit two entries, which were uploaded to the official online site for the competition. A judging committee consisting of Microsoft Research Asia researchers and Chinese astronomers evaluated the entries. A website enabled the public to comment.

And the Winner Is …

The winning entry was created by Qin Wang, a student at East China Normal University. She took inspiration from a Chinese television talk show and used WorldWide Telescope to create “Exploring the Solar System with WorldWide Telescope.” In it, she created questions and answers about the solar system for a fictional talk-show host, creating personifications for the sun and planets. Images and music added to the astronomical tour she created.

Winners, astronomers, and Microsoft research personnel.
Winners of the competition posed for an award-ceremony photo with leading astronomers and Microsoft Research Asia officials.

“In the process of designing my entry, I flew through the solar system using WorldWide Telescope,” Wang wrote in a blog post. “I could search planets by zooming in and zooming out, and sometimes, I would find material to indulge my interest in space and totally forget I was working on a project entry.”

Along with other winners, Wang attended the awards ceremony, which included Microsoft Research Asia representatives, several news organizations, and prominent members of the Chinese astronomical community.

Jing says the buzz caused by the competition continues to reverberate.

“People still are talking about it,” she says, “especially in universities, because a lot of students from universities entered, and now they want to use WorldWide Telescope in their classes and to do homework. And teachers now are using it as an educational tool.”