Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Microsoft unveils 'Google Earth' for space

Space, the final frontier, is about to be inundated with sightseers. Microsoft has unveiled a new website which brings the outer reaches of the universe to the fingertips of anyone with internet access and a computer.

Worldwide Telescope
WorldWide Telescope can display the locations of planets in the past, present, or future

The application knits together images from powerful ground and space-based telescopes across the world, allowing users to roam seamlessly across the solar system, galaxy and beyond.

The Worldwide Telescope site also offers guided tours, hosted by astronomers and academics, of galactic destinations such as the Milky Way, the Eta Carina Nebula and the darker reaches of the galaxy.

Users can choose from a variety of telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory Center, the Spitzer Space Telescope, to access detailed images of stars, constellations and space dust normally reserved for Nasa scientists.

The free service, which can run on both PCs and Macs, also lets viewers switch between different light wavelengths, revealing structures hidden to the naked eye.

Roy Gould, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics - a partner in the site, said the application could have a "profound impact on the way we view the universe".

"Users can see the X-ray view of the sky, zoom into bright radiation clouds, and then cross-fade into the visible light view and discover the cloud remnants of a supernova explosion from a thousand years ago."

Developed by Microsoft’s research arm, WorldWide Telescope can display the locations of planets in the past, present, or future, but is not presented in real time.

Bill Gates, the Chairman of Microsoft , said the site was a powerful tool for science and education.

"By combining terabytes of incredible imagery and data with easy-to-use software for viewing and moving through all that information, the WorldWide Telescope opens the door to new ways to see and experience the wonders of space. Our hope is that it will inspire young people to explore astronomy and science, and help researchers in their quest to better understand the universe."

The application, similar to the popular Google Earth which shows satellite images of the surface of the planet, has already made a strong impression on technology bloggers.

Robert Scoble, an American blogger and former Microsoft employee, claimed he shed a tear while watching a demonstration of WorldWide Telescope earlier this year.

"I realized the way I look at the world was about to change... It’s been a long while since Microsoft did something that had an emotional impact on me like that."

But not everyone was equally moved.

Commenting on Mr Scoble’s blog, RBA said: "After playing with it for a few minutes, I think that the most remarkable feature (other than a nice interface design) is the "community" option.

"The rest of features - again leaving aside a very nice interface - are already present in desktop software apps such as TheSky or the much fancier StarryNight (Pro Plus)."

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Imminent Discovery of Life On Mars?

Life on Mars?Do you think there is life on Mars? Do you think Phoenix will find evidence of it? Now there's a blog that's trying to collect a snapshot of the opinions of scientists, amateurs, and everyday people. "Imminent Discovery" thinks Phoenix may find simple life. Finding this evidence will definitely become headlines… If it happens. Is it possible it might have originated from earth? Perhaps from space, like the famous Antarctica meteorite which was believed to contain evidence of life transported here from Mars?

According to Richard Trentman, a Minor Planet Coordinator at Powell Observatory, "The idea of life in some form on other planets, I believe is highly probable. I have studied about the extreme places on this planet where life has been found and many are far more extreme than may be found on Mars and other planets or moons in our solar system. I believe that anyone that thinks life cannot be "out there" has their eyes closed and blinders on."

Over time, many astronomers have spent a lifetime dreaming of life and formations on Mars like the misguided Slipher: "Some form of vegetation exists. …The evidence is in the blue-green areas and the changes in their appearance. Vegetation would present exactly the appearance shown, and nothing we know of but vegetation could. The season change that sweeps over them is metabolic…" And yet others take more pragmatic views like astronaut Pete Conrad who commented on bacteria surviving on retrieved Surveyor III remains: "The most significant thing we ever found on the whole Moon was that little bacteria who came back and lived an nobody ever said (anything) about it."

What's your opinion? Help to update the book "Imminent Discovery, NASA's Phoenix and the Secret of Life on Mars" in a post-discovery edition with some of these inputs. Please feel free to Post Your Thoughts On The Imminent Discovery of Life On Mars. Responses may be anonymous or you may use initials if you prefer. To make it more interesting, there is a random drawing of all individuals who enter comments to give away one copy of the classic 1962 book by Earl Slipher "Mars, the Photographic Story", and a competition between astronomy clubs. Have fun!

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Two New Ways to Explore the Virtual Universe, in Vivid 3-D

The skies may be the next frontier in travel, yet not even the wealthiest space tourist can zoom out to, say, the Crab Nebula, the Trapezium Cluster or Eta Carinae, a star 100 times more massive than the Sun and 7,500 light-years away.

But those galactic destinations and thousands of others can now be toured and explored at the controls of a computer mouse, with the constellations, stars and space dust displayed in vivid detail and animated imagery across the screen. The project, the WorldWide Telescope, is the culmination of years of work by researchers at Microsoft, and the Web site and free downloadable software are available starting on Tuesday, at

There are many online astronomy sites, but astronomers say the Microsoft entry sets a new standard in three-dimensional representation of vast amounts data plucked from space telescopes, the ease of navigation, the visual experience and features like guided tours narrated by experts.

“Exploring the virtual universe is incredibly smooth and seamless like a top-of-the-line computer game, but also the science is correct,” said Alexander Szalay, a professor of astronomy and physics at Johns Hopkins. “No sacrifices have been made. It just feels as if you are in it.”

The WorldWide Telescope project spans astronomy, education and computing. Educators hope its rich images, animation and design for self-navigation will help entice computer-gaming young people into astronomy and science in general. The space service, astronomers say, could also become valuable in scientific discovery, especially with a professional version being developed with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Like many fields of science, astronomy has become digitized and data rich in recent years, making it an ideal proving ground for advanced computing techniques in data mining, visualization and searching.

So it is scarcely surprising that the other major company with an ambitious astronomy service online is Google. The Internet search giant first layered astronomical data and images onto Google Earth last August.

The switch to astronomy in Google Sky amounts to looking out into space instead of down on Earth. Two months ago, Google introduced a Web-based version of Google Sky, layering space images on its searchable map service.

Microsoft and Google are spirited competitors and antagonists in the rough-and-tumble commercial markets of Internet search and software. Yet in online astronomy, both sides proclaim mutual respect and say their sole rivalry is in scientific discovery and public education. They say they have no plans to sell advertising on the astronomy sites.

Scientists and educators applaud the interest and investment by the two.

“It’s really encouraging that both Microsoft and Google are there, pushing these powerful tools for science education forward,” said Daniel Atkins, director of the National Science Foundation’s Office of Cyberinfrastructure, which focuses on using new technology in learning and research.

There may be no space war between Microsoft and Google, but their offerings reflect their different cultures. The WorldWide Telescope results from careful planning and lengthy development in a research division. It has the richer graphics and it created special software to present the images of spherical space objects with less polar distortion. WorldWide Telescope requires downloading a hefty piece of software, and it runs only on Microsoft Windows.

Google Sky started as a Google “20 percent” project, in which engineers can spend time on anything they choose. Google Earth, where Google Sky began, requires a software download, but its Web-based version, which came out in March, does not. The Google culture encourages engineers to put new things onto the Internet quickly and keep improving them, a philosophy geared to constant evolution instead of finished products.

Despite differences, the companies share motivations. Lior Ron, Google Sky product manager, said the astronomy focus “says a lot about the interests of the people in both companies.” At Google, Mr. Ron, 31, is one of a group of astronomy enthusiasts. He built his own telescope as a teenager and went to astronomy camps in his native Israel. He said he almost joined private space industry last year instead of Google.

A personal fascination in astronomy has also energized work at Microsoft. Jonathan Fay, 42, the lead software engineer on the project, has built an observatory, with a dome eight feet in diameter, in his backyard in suburban Seattle.

The inspiration for the WorldWide Telescope, and much of the early work, came from Jim Gray, a renowned computer scientist who disappeared last year while sailing alone off northern California. Mr. Gray had long been intrigued by the computing challenges of presenting map and satellite images online. His project to show aerial map images of the world, TerraServer, went up in June 1998, a few months before Google was founded. Mr. Gray then worked for years with astronomers on the concept he presented in Science in September 2001, “The World-wide Telescope.” Mr. Szalay was co-author.

Mr. Gray’s vision was largely about making the flood of astronomical data accessible and usable for scientists. The project began to take on its current look and design in fall 2006, when Curtis Wong started working on it full time. Mr. Wong, another amateur astronomer, heads a new media research group at Microsoft, which he joined in 1998. He is the creator of award-winning multimedia CD-ROMs on subjects like the Barnes art collection, Leonardo da Vinci and the making of the atomic bomb.

When he came to the astronomy project, Mr. Wong recalled telling Mr. Gray, “This is great, but let’s bring all this data and make it available, accessible and engaging to the public.”

A conversation with Mr. Wong, 54, is different from most around the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash., which is mainly populated by engineers, marketers and business managers. Mr. Wong speaks of the WorldWide Telescope’s allowing citizen explorers to make and post virtual tours. One tour on the site is by a 6-year-old boy from Toronto. “What we’re starting with is just a foundation,” Mr. Wong said. “When it really gets interesting is when more and more stories populate the WorldWide Telescope.”

Young people today are used to sharing stories, on MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and elsewhere. Educators hope that the WorldWide Telescope can entice them to take an interest in astronomy. “Science has a bad rap because it is seen as a dry accumulation of facts,” said Roy R. Gould, a science education expert at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “But this is a visually beautiful environment where you can explore, create and share.”

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Black holes not black after all

International scientists have used flowing water to simulate a black hole, testing Stephen Hawking's theory that black holes are not black after all.

The researchers, led by Professor Ulf Leonhardt at the University of St Andrews and Dr Germain Rousseaux at the University of Nice, used a water channel to create analogues of black holes, simulating event horizons.

An event horizon is the place in the channel where the water begins to flow faster than the waves. The scientists sent waves against the current, varied the water speed and the wavelength, and filmed the waves with video cameras. Over several months the team painstakingly searched the videos for clues. They wanted to see whether the waves show signs of Stephen Hawking's famous prediction that the event horizon creates particles and anti-particles.

Professor Ulf Leonhardt, from the School of Physics and Astronomy, explained, "It is probably impossible to observe the Hawking radiation of black holes in space, but something like the radiation of black holes can be seen on Earth, even in something as simple as flowing water."

Black holes resemble cosmic drains where space disappears like water going down a plughole. Space seems to flow, and the closer one gets to the black hole, the faster it flows. At the event horizon space appears to reach the speed of light, so nothing, not even light, can escape beyond this point of no return.

The experiments were carried out at the Genimar laboratory near Nice which houses a 30-metre-long water channel with a powerful pump on one end and a wave machine on the other. The normal business of Genimar is testing the environmental impact of currents and waves on coasts or the hulls of French submarines, but the scientists turned the machinery to testing black holes.

The team demonstrated that something as simple and familiar as flowing water might contain clues of the mysterious and exotic physics of black holes. In a forthcoming paper in New Journal of Physics, the scientists report observed traces of "anti-waves" in their videos.

Professor Leonhardt continued, "Flowing water does not create anti-particles, but it may create anti-waves. Normal waves heave up and down in the direction they move, whereas anti-waves do the opposite.

"We definitely have observed these negative-frequency waves. These waves were tiny, but they were still significantly stronger than expected. However, our experiment does not completely agree with theory and so much work remains to be done to understand exactly what happens at the event horizon for water waves."

Images and videos can be downloaded from


NOTE TO EDITORS: The researchers are available for interview:

Professor Ulf Leonhardt, University of St Andrews on +44 - 1334 - 463115 / +44 - 777 - 0701348 or email

Dr Germain Rousseaux, Université de Nice Sophia Antipolis, Research associate at CNRS, on +33-4-92-07-60-29 / +33-4-92-07-60-30 / +33-6-74-41-10-58 or email



Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews
Contact Fiona Armstrong, Press Officer on 01334 462530 / 462529, email
Ref: black holes 12/05/08
View the latest University press releases at

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