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For anyone who wants to better understand the cosmos, Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope (WWT), now in its public beta, will bring the night sky down to your computer screen. It’s scientific, educational, fun–and it’s free. As someone who’s used a number of astronomy software programs, Web sites, and Web apps over the years, my first look at the WWT, left my head spinning in awe.

WWT is a major effort, representing years of development by Microsoft’s Next Media Research Group and assists their partners in the scientific and academic worlds–and it shows. WWT provides far more resources than the Sky mode in Google Earth.

A Web app with a downloadable client component, WWT stitches together terabytes of high-resolution images of celestial bodies and displays them in their actual positions in the sky. The interface is well designed, and it’s easy to navigate across the heavens by mouse. It uses Microsoft’s Visual Experience Engine, which allows seamless panning and zooming. People can freely browse through the solar system (you can make close “fly-bys” of the virtual globes of the Moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and its moons, and explore the exotic planet Earth in several modes), galaxy and beyond. Users can take advantage of a growing number of guided tours of the sky hosted by astronomers and educators at major universities and planetariums. There are also WWT “communities” sponsored by astronomy magazines and telescope manufacturers.

A number of organizations, including NASA, Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, CalTech, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and WGBH Boston (creators of Nova) have provided support and in many cases images to the project. Users can select imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory Center, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and a number of other sky surveys at many different wavelengths.

WorldWide Telescope is a free resource, so give it a test run. Once you’ve downloaded and installed the client software, run the program, and prepare to journey to the far reaches of the universe.

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