Google Sky Turns Computer Into Telescope

Aug 22, 2007
Google Sky Turns Computer Into Telescope
Screen snap from the Sky in Google Earth depicting boundaries around major constellations. Image credit: NASA, ESA, Digitized Sky Survey Consortium, and the STScI-Google Partnership

Imagine cruising the heavens from your desktop and seeing all the spectacular images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. Exploding stars and faraway galaxies are just a mouse click away through Sky in Google Earth.

This new, free, downloadable browser is produced by Google, the company that hosts the popular Internet search engine, through a partnership with the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, the science operations center for Hubble.

The program is modeled after Google Earth, which allows you to tour our planet. With Sky in Google Earth, you can travel across the vastness of the night sky, making tour stops at all the popular Hubble images. Though these celestial objects are far away from Earth, you can reach them in a few seconds with Sky in Google Earth.

"You have seen the Hubble images of objects such as the Eagle Nebula, the so-called pillars of creation," said Carol Christian, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute and one of the developers of the Sky in Google Earth project. "With Sky in Google Earth you can see where the objects are located in space, including the constellations in which they reside. Then you can discover other cool objects in nearby regions of the sky. And you don't have to know anything about astronomy to use the program."

Travelers can begin their celestial tour by selecting an object, such as the Eagle Nebula, or even a category, such as colliding galaxies, from a menu. You will first get a backyard view of the sky showing the constellations surrounding your selected object. As you zoom in, the constellations disappear and your chosen object emerges from the background.

The image is set within a background of real stars and galaxies taken by two powerful visible-light surveys of the heavens, the Digitized Sky Survey and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The Digitized Sky Survey comprises photographic surveys of nearly the entire sky and contains about a million objects. The Sloan survey comprises images of hundreds of millions of much fainter objects and covers more than a quarter of the sky.

"This is a fun program for amateur astronomers, scientists, educators, and the public to explore space," Christian said. "It is like having the heavens at your fingertips, or your own planetarium."

Pretty pictures aren't the only part of this versatile program. Click on the icon of the HubbleSite logo and information on the object taken from the Institute press release or photo caption will appear. Sky in Google Earth also will provide links to the Hubble news database and other Hubble information, including the Hubble Heritage project.

About 125 Hubble images, spanning the life of the telescope, are currently included in the Sky in Google Earth program. Over the telescope’s lifetime these image have been meticulously prepared for the public in collaboration between the Institute’s science visualization experts in its Office of Public Outreach, and the worldwide community of astronomers who use Hubble. The images have become iconic all over the world; gracing the covers not only of science journals, but record albums, pop culture magazines, and even making cameo appearances in Hollywood science fiction movies.

Christian and her co-developer, Space Telescope Science Institute astronomer Alberto Conti, plan to add the public images from 2007, as well as color images of all of the archived data from Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys. Newly released Hubble pictures will be added to the Sky in Google Earth program as soon as they are issued, Conti said.

To add even more interest and adventure, Conti and Christian hope to help other observatories, such as the National Optical Astronomy Observatory and other NASA missions, add their images to Sky in Google Earth.

Link: earth.google.com/sky/skyedu.html

Source: NASA, by Donna Weaver/Ray Villard

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