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.
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.
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.