Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Tour the Universe with a Planetarium on your PC

It's Tuesday again, and time for another Tuesday Citizen Science "Tools of the Trade" post.  What I like about this series is getting the chance to explore some of the fascinating resources available that aren't distinct projects, but which put everything in context and help us appreciate the science even more.  I've come across many of them over the last year and was always excited to share them with you.  I just didn't know how...and now it's my chance.

Photo Courtesy: WorldWideTelescope.org and OpenScientist.org

Today I want to look at the WorldWide Telescope project: a partnership between Microsoft and NASA to make astronomy accessible to citizen scientists everywhere.  It let's you explore the night sky with a highly intuitive, easy-to-use, and pretty-to-look-at interface.  You can zoom around the stars, point the telescope at distant galaxies, "land" on Mars or the moon while panning around images from the Spirit and Phoenix landers, and you can scan the planet's surface with images taken from orbiting satellites such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.  You can also program a "tour" of sites and create a presentation of interesting sites or follow one of the many pre-programmed tours available in the program.  This let's it be used as a home planetarium, just more powerful and with the ability to point it yourself.

Much of the imagery comes directly from NASA missions that have produced a wealth of information, but that's not the only source.  Much also comes from Earth-based telescope surveys recording in a wide variety of wavelengths.  This lets citizen scientists look at far-off galaxies in infrared or the optical range, and make comparisons of what they see.  You can even add your own data with the Excel plug-in and other capabilities built-in to the system.  So not only is it a great educational tool for beginning astronomers, but it's also capable of helping with more advanced citizen science and professional projects.

I could spend a longtime talking about all you can do with the program but I'll leave that for another time.  For now let's just dive in and start playing around.

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Visit the Worldwide Telescope web page and read about the many features of the program.  If you prefer, watchthere  various introductory videos to learn more about the project and get excited about the program's possibilities.
  2. Click on the "Install Windows Client" (for PC) or "Run Web Client" (for Mac or PC) button.  If you are installing, follow the prompts and download the necessary add-ons to accommodate the program.  It should only take a minute or two, then open the program.  People choosing "Run Web Client" won't need to install and will save time by jumping right into the program (though the program may be slower once you actually get into it.)
  3. If you want to tour specific pre-set planets and galaxies, use the ribbon bar at the top of the program screen to select a destination.  Clicking on it will cause your screen to "travel" to the location.
  4. If you prefer to explore yourself, just use the mouse to pan around and use the scroll buttons to zoom in and out (traveling further and further away from Earth).
  5. If you prefer to view different sky surveys or images at different wavelengths, use the "Look at Sky" feature on the bottom bar and select the appropriate data set.  You can also use the telescope missions on the top ribbon bar to select different wavelengths or data sets for viewing.
  6. That's all there is to it.  Have fun!
Hopefully you'll have as much fun exploring with this program as I have.  It's extremely powerful and we've only scratched the surface of it's features with the instructions above.  But let's play around and see what it can do first.  In future posts I plan to describe more specific ways we can use this tool for our own citizen science projects or to even create a brand new project.  I also plan to tour some of the other resources available for making NASA imagery public.  The missions were fully paid for by us taxpayers; now we have a chance to experience them ourselves.

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