Field of Science

Visualizing Astronomy

Most people's business on earth is only concerned with what is on earth, and reasonably so. However, a select few of us have a vested interest in what happens in the sky above earth. The common vein of humanity that connects us is that everyone wistfully looks up the the sky at some point in desperation or inspiration. But the city lights make it so you just can't see what you used to, but you can see something completely different on your computer. You can explore the sky with online star gazing tools even if you live in a big city. If you want to look at the sky right now and have a modern web browser the easiest way is jump right into it. There are several software programs I can mention including a Google project, a Microsoft project, and a vaguely related independent academic project.

Google Sky is Google's star gazing tool that is packaged with Google Earth or available as an online version. Google sky is the most accessible, simple, and comprehensive sky tool at once I would say. I perceive Google Sky as simpler, faster and more effective than anything else, but I must state as a disclaimer that my view is colored by the fact that my advisor was the technical lead for the project and it remains a possibility that I may develop software widgets for it.

World Wide Telescope, WWT, by Microsoft is a multimedia star gazing extravaganza. There is a web based version, if you have Microsoft silver light installed. One of the current highlights I see is that it has tools for making professional looking presentations with links, videos, and seamless transitions that anyone in the community can create and so there are already some good presentations available. It can also incorporate external data sets and visualize the data in 3D which is their confusing attempt to get the professional astronomy community involved which seems to be very slow on the uptake. Last week a Microsoft employee came to UW and gave us a colloquium about the project. It seemed misguided because the real point of this program is that it just looks nice. Navigation is intuitive and with a right click you can get information about the current object and external links. The images in the sky are more seamlessly mosaiced and the entire experience seems more complete than Google sky, but the price you pay for this beauty and user interface is the slow speed at which imagery loads and the overall system demands, in fact if your trying to run the online version expect very slow frame rates. I would recommend downloading it, but you will still need a powerful windows system for an optimal experience. is something kind of different, but I am mentioning it here because it is sort of the professional version of these sky tools. The ostensible purpose of these sky tools is to enable the sharing of images of the sky of all varieties, at all wavelengths, and at all locations to anyone who wants to see them. But the reality is that most people who want to see these high fidelity images really just want to obtain calibrated standardized data ready for their code to read in. The public is only looking at a tiny tiny fraction of the data available and will never be interested in the statistical distribution of objects (unless it is in 3D of course, in which case it will hold their attention marginally longer). is an 'astrometric calibration service to create correct, standards-compliant astrometric meta-data for every useful astronomical image ever taken, past and future, in any state of archival disarray. We hope this will help organize, annotate and make searchable all the world's astronomical information.' So, while people like to look at pretty images of the sky, astronomers want to analyze all images of the sky; a by product of this is that in the future the images will be readily uploaded to accessible sky visualizations for everyone to enjoy.

So I would recommend WWT for any student looking for the best astronomy multimedia available. I would recommend Google Sky for any browser anytime. I would recommend for scientists. I will probably talk about astronomy a lot on this blag because that is what I do so if your ever looking for context to what I might be talking about this is where to look.

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