While it still isn't formally released yet, today Microsoft presented its first general-purpose astronomical software at the prestigiousTED Conference. The WorldWide Telescope (WWT) is a doozy of a program. It will be a free Internet-based sky-charting program for Windows that's an interesting amalgam of desktop-planetarium, telescope-control, and presentation software.
The developers bristle when anyone compares it to Google Sky, but it is kind of like it. And when Sky was announced last year, it stole some of WWT's still-in-development thunder. I alluded to WWT in my blog and in my Astronomy Online column in the December 2007 issue of S&T, but that was all I could say about it at the time.
WWT has its origins in the "virtual observatory" concept, in which various datasets — stars, object catalogs, and sky surveys at various wavelengths — could be compiled into one enormous mass of astronomical information that astronomers could sift through and display selected portions. WWT sprung up from the foundations of Microsoft's TerraServer, a mapping utility incorporating aerial and satellite imagery that I noted eight years ago.
I first learned about WWT last year after contributing editor Gary Seronik saw developer (and amateur astronomer) Jonathan Fay demonstrate an early version at the Table Mountain Star Party. Over the next few months, Fay and Curtis Wong, the principal researcher for Microsoft's Next Media Research Group, had several conversations with me and Rick Fienberg about the software's potential. We were given an "alpha" version of the software. I haven't used it much, however. At the moment, WWT doesn't play well with the video on my work computer.
Besides being a sky browser that will connect to your telescope, WWT will also make it easy to create "tours." You can incorporate pictures, voice, and sound to make programs like PowerPoint presentations. Clearly this aspect has a lot of potential.
When I read the rumors of the TED announcement, I had hoped that perhaps a beta version of the software was ready. But no... you'll have to wait a little longer before you can play with WWT yourself. Until then, you can get a tad more information from the FAQ at the WWT site and watch this presentation from the TED Conference.