I suppose we began the quest when we sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” From the world of nursery rhymes to trendy TV series and movies such as The Big Bang Theory and Star Trek and to India’s own baby steps in exploring Mars, gazing into the vast universe is now a part of our curiosity cult.
Mars Rover turned 10 on January 24 --- that is 10 years of wandering around the surface of the red planet, seeing and reporting.
While such adventures happen, what can we ordinary folks – the ones without NASA or ISRO jobs – really do to get a piece of the space action?
In some ways, telescopes are passé. And then, you are looking for answers to some hard questions: What is that spot of light you are seeing? Is it a planet or a star? How do you spot a black hole or a nebula? Why is Pluto no longer considered the ninth planet? Unless you have a friendly neighbourhood astronomer on call, you will just have questions, and no answers.
You do have a whole load of information on the Internet, with online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia to serve up some stuff. Google Sky and NASA’s website are also good places to visit. But beyond on all this, there is a more sophisticated way to go star-gazing.
It’s an app and called the World Wide Telescope (www. worldwidetelescope.org).
A free software from Microsoft Research, World Wide Telescope turned 5 recently, and its 5.0 release came out earlier in January. This, we may say is to universe-gazing what a city bus tour is for tourists.Imagine a guided tour of space from the comfort of your house --- featuring a high definition movie with sound, graphics, interesting information, a tour of the planets in our galaxy and beyond. That is World Wide Telescope. It offers features such as touchbased control on a Windows 8 computer to exciting new data sets, a brand new rendering engine that puts out high performance cinematic experience, and even a capability for you to build your own planetarium, with a projector and a domed roof.
To get the application you need to have Windows 7 or Windows 8 on your PC, with a fair amount of processing power and a fast Internet connection. If you still run Windows XP, you would have to download an older version, not 5.0. Set up the application and you are all ready to explore the universe in a way you probably could never have imagined.
Launch the application and you can navigate seamlessly through a 3D spherical environment, accessing hundreds of terabytes of sky, earth and planet data, getting up close to black holes and billions of other “diamonds in the sky”.
A number of guided tours created by astronomers and educators from famous planetariums take you on the tour. You can go back 2 billion years in time and watch a gravitational lens bending light from galaxies, allowing you to see billions of years of cosmic history --- to figure out, for instance, why Pluto is no longer a planet. Tired eyes? Out of time? You can leave the tour, and resume from the same place later. You can also download tours to watch them offline, or build your own tours, with a facility to share these online.
Other features include changing the telescope to get X-ray and infrared views and different viewpoints of the same galaxy. The guided tours are like high definition movies with narration, music, graphics, text and animation.
But you can always override the tour and zoom in, more and more, to find details that will ignite your mind to explore more. Also on offer are panoramas from the Mars Rover. And another option is to connect your laptop computer to an expensive computerised telescope to explore space for real. From amateurs to professional astronomers, World Wide Telescope is opening up a whole new world.