WorldWide Telescope | Out Of This World Weekly

It wasn’t long ago that the only way to truly see the wonders of the universe was to go out, buy a fairly expensive telescope, and try to point it at the sky until you found something interesting to look at.  With most people living in light polluted cities, this would usually produce limited results that took a long night of searching to achieve.  Today astronomers use vast telescopes that are able to peer billions of years into the past, yet they rarely if ever look through an actual lens.  Instead of a lens, light sensitive devices are put into the telescope and these produce pictures which the astronomers can look at on their computers just like we do at home.  Microsoft Research has been working on a way to get all the pictures from all of the telescopes to be accessible on your computer through the internet.  They call this program the WorldWide Telescope (WWT) and it is free to everyone.  That’s right, now you have access to the best and updated images of every planet, star, nebula, galaxy that the professionals do.

This software is impressive as Microsoft Research has spent a good amount of time and money to make this an interactive learning experience.  There are a few basic ways to look at the universe in this program.  You can look at planets and moons by zooming in on them and rotating them with either a mouse, an Xbox 360 controller, or a Kinect system which allows users to control the universe with their body motions.  Even Earth can be viewed with accurate imagery and altitude data, allowing for a superb map resource.   It is possible to put yourself in the middle of panoramas available from missions to Mars and the Moon that make you feel as if you are in that location, able to look around in 360 degrees.  The solar system can be viewed so that the orbits of the planets, moons, asteroids can be traced with time controls that allow for fast forwarding.  You can even set the planets to their correct position for any time in history or the future.  With the sky view, you can put yourself anywhere on Earth and look into the sky using the data from several all sky surveys.  This allows you to zoom in and instantly look at all astronomical features without having to sift through large amounts of separate images.  Catalogs of objects In the sky can be used, so that the program will show you exactly where in the sky that object is located.  While controls for the program are fairly intuitive, there are resources and tutorials available to show you how to most precisely control this program for optimal benefit. 

Guided tours are available that allow the user to be led through a tour of various astronomical objects narrated by professional astronomers.  This allows for a high quality full multimedia presentation and more of these tours can be found online as they become available.  A large community can also be accessed allowing for new information to be input into the program on a variety of subjects.  While this provides a high quality multimedia learning opportunity, the WorldWide Telescope Ambassadors Program is led by highly astronomically literate volunteers that directly use WWT as a teaching tool.  Material has even been developed for classroom use including lesson plans, curriculum guides, and other resources designed to help educators teach astronomy to both Middle and High school students.  These lessons can be taught on anything from a laptop computer to large multi-monitor or even projection systems mounted inside inflatable domes for a truly immersive experience.  Wherever the learning experience is taken, WWT offers something that was only available in planetariums 5 years ago yet now with far more with internet connectivity and access to the most up to date resources possible.  WWT is available for free in both Windows Client software or a slightly less capable Web Client and should run on most computers and I do recommend this for both a fun time and learning experience. 

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