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On Monday, PopSci got an exclusive, behind-the-scenes preview of Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope (WWT), a comprehensive digital planetarium that brings the latest imaging from telescopes around the world together in a simple point-and-click interface. It’s like gazing up a perfectly cloudless night sky, panning and zooming to explore as you please.

The underlying data is exquisitely detailed. One small segment of the sky may be based on a 400-megabyte base image, allowing the sensation of “zooming in” like you’re traveling deeply into that region at Warp 6 aboard the Starship Enterprise.

The WWT seamlessly overlays various imaging technologies, letting you toggle between very different views of the same area with a simple mouse-click. The Crab Nebula looks relatively flat when viewed through a visible-light telescope, for example, but images from an infrared-sensitive telescope yield a very different understanding of the underlying structures. X-ray, microwave and other imaging systems provide further fodder for exploration.

Guided Tours of the Cosmos

For me, though, the WorldWide Telescope’s most exciting aspect isn’t the imaging, but the storytelling. Project leader Curtis Wong came to Microsoft after stints with PBS, Voyager (publisher of the Criterion Collection movie DVDs) and various CD-ROM ventures, all geared toward combining information with entertainment. In the WWT, this approach takes the form of downloadable astronomical tours, complete with voice narration, musical scoring, dramatic camera pans and zooms plus text and photo inserts.

The free WWT software package includes the tools to create these tours. And the process is as simple as using a presentation program, such as PowerPoint, opening the way for a wide variety of author/enthusiasts to add their perspective.

I watched two tours created by early testers, one a Harvard astrophysics professor, the other a six-year-old astronomy buff from Toronto. They were both absolutely engaging, full of the author’s excitement at the opportunity to share a passion for astronomy in a unique and dramatic format.

The project site at worldwidetelescope.org currently hosts a preview that barely hints at the gee-whiz factor the actual software provides–the full program download will be available from the same site in the spring.

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