Any Star Trek fan knows that space travel is not always easy, but Microsoft Corp wants to make traveling the "final frontier" as simple as turning on your computer.
The world's largest software maker launched a free software application called WorldWide Telescope on Monday that allows everyone from space novices to astronomy professors to easily explore galaxies, star systems and distant planets.
The WorldWide Telescope stitches together 12 terabytes -- the data equivalent of 2.6 billion pages of text -- of pictures from sources including the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory Center and the Spitzer Space Telescope.
The experience is similar to playing a video game, allowing users to zoom in and out of galaxies that are thousands of light years away. It allows seamless viewing of far-away star systems and rarely-seen space dust in breathtaking clarity.
A test version of the software is available for download at www.worldwidetelescope.org.
Microsoft archrival Google Inc also has its eyes to the skies. Google Sky started as an extension of space data and images into Google Earth before eventually unveiling a version that can be used through a Web browser.
Google's version is also free.
Microsoft said it will release the WorldWide Telescope free of charge as a tribute to Jim Gray, a Microsoft researcher who went missing off the coast of California while sailing last year. Gray worked on projects with astronomers to organize the vast amounts of data and images being pulled from satellites.
Microsoft expects the technology used in the WorldWide Telescope to help the company in future software applications, but the goal for this program is to spark the interest of children to want to learn more about space and possibly pursue careers in science and engineering.
"My idea of success is if WorldWide Telescope changes how people see the universe and for a generation of kids to have a degree of knowledge about space that they are just not getting now," said Curtis Wong, manager of Microsoft's Next Media Research Group.
"Contextualizing astronomy is missing right now. You see all of these Hubble images and they're amazing, but you have no idea about how big they are, how far away it is."
The software allows users to develop their own guided tours of the universe to share with others or take part a guided tour created by astronomy experts.