(photo credit: NASA)
In the world (Internet) war, no quarter is safe - everything is up for grabs. Legend has it that after the Titans did battle on earth, they brought their war up to the stars.
Well, the legend has come to pass. The war that began down here between Google and Microsoft - in the form of their earth 3D virtualization programs - has now spread to the skies. Last August, Google introduced Google Sky, an "extra" for Google Earth that lets you look up virtually from the ground - as opposed to down below from the sky, as in GE (Sky has since moved on-line for those without Google Earth installed, at http://www.google.com/sky/).
Microsoft also has an earth virtualization scheme, called Virtual Earth. As opposed to Google Earth's desktop application, the MS version is strictly an on-line affair (some role reversal there, considering that Google is the on-line king, while the desktop is MS's domain), accessible at http://maps.live.com/ (you may need to download a 3D display component from http://www.microsoft.com/virtualearth/ in order to use the site properly).
Both earth programs have been around for a few years; in early reviews of both, many users gave the advantage to the MS program because it had more ready-made buildings and landmarks, and rendered better 3D images up close, but most people now consider both programs to have more or less the same capabilities.
Last week, Microsoft launched its own space-based virtual mapping program, called WorldWide Telescope (http://www.worldwidetelescope.org/). The early reviews give it high marks (even GE-focused Ogle Earth called it "stunning" at http://tinyurl.com/6nhqvy). In terms of experience, WWT really gives you a bang for the buck (don't worry, it's free), allowing you to explore the ends of the universe, just like Google Sky - except the attention to detail seems greater, and the pictures seem sharper.
WWT's images are taken from the Hubble Telescope and 10 major earthly satellites, while GS relies mostly on the Hubble. With WWT, you can move back in time to the beginning of the common era or move forward another 2,000 years, and view the sky as it was or will be seen from any point on earth, complete with labels on what you're looking at (stars, constellations, etc.).
You can zoom into an area of the sky as far as the telescope image supports (ie viewing from the same spot in space that the photo was taken from). You can see the Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Venus and four of Jupiter's moons (not Titan, though) in full-rendered 3D. You can view panoramas of the sky or the planets taken by spacecraft that have flown there, such as panoramic views of Mars taken by the Rover, as well as collections of images taken from some of the most famous observatories and planetariums in the world.
And, using the ASCOM (AStronomy Common Object Model) driver, you can attach supported hardware - like telescopes - to your computer and record your own images, which you can add to WWT and integrate into your virtual universe. You can build your own "guided tours" of the universe (similar to building a Powerpoint presentation). WWT even has an earth component, offering many of the views available in MS Virtual Earth (although it uses a different engine).
WWT sounds wonderful, and it is. But (there's always one of those): Wimpy computers need not apply. This is an application designed with the Vista Age in mind. You need memory (gobs) and a video card capable of accelerated 3D graphics (to display DirectX 9.0 compatible graphics, a must for WWT). However, if you have a relatively new computer, you should already have all the hardware you need for it; I got WWT to work on my Macbook with virtualized Windows XP (SP3) installed, using a virtual 3D graphics card. It wasn't the fastest horse on the track, but it did the job.
Indeed, "professional production" is written all over WWT. For a company often called unimaginative by its critics, WWT really is something new and different. According to Microsoft, they are not planning to work out ways to profit from WWT (until daily space shuttles around the Solar System become a reality, I guess) - it's more of a prestige project, unlike the case with Google Earth and MS Virtual Earth.
As such, you download, install and use WWT on Microsoft's terms - and if your computer doesn't meet the standards they've set for use, then it's not for you (in other words, you really, really need a Vista machine to enjoy this to the fullest). Of course, Mac and Linux users are not invited to the party (don't expect one, either). And, unlike in Google Earth and Sky, where any old Joe can feel right at home, the community in WWT is associated with prestigious publications or groups, such as the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and or Sky & Telescope magazine. It's truly humbling to be able to tap into the knowledge provided by these groups, and even more humbling to see the miracles of outer space up close.
If you're really into the stars and take astronomy seriously, though - if you've ever wanted to "see the distribution and illumination of massive primordial hydrogen cloud structures lit up by the high-energy radiation coming from nearby stars in the Milky Way" (http://tinyurl.com/6jll5x) - you're going to love WWT.
But wait - before you download and install (or if you're not a Windows user), keep in mind that there are other virtual universes out there you can download and use. The one I like best is Stellarium (http://www.stellarium.org), a free open-source program that lets you examine the universe from anywhere in the world, and works in bunch of languages (no Hebrew, though). You can also install user scripts of events that occurred in the past, record presentations, set the earth time for previous or future cosmological events, and check out more than 210 million stars.
Between Google Earth/Sky, WorldWide Telescope and Stellarium, you'll be busy flying around the universe, whiling the light years away - until you come back down to earth and explore the briny deep, with the upcoming Google Ocean (http://www.stellarium.org)!
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