Among astronomer John Huchra's most famous achievements was the CfA Redshift Survey he conducted with Margaret Geller (and Valerie de Lapparent), which mapped the entire large-scale structure of the universe. It created one of the most iconic astronomy images of the 1980s: this "CfA stickman."
updated 2/7/2011 7:58:32 PM ET 2011-02-08T00:58:32

Hey, amateur astronomers: good news! A vast array of astronomical data is now just a mouse click away, thanks to a new online interactive astronomy visualization software program from Microsoft Research called the Worldwide Telescope (WWT).

Per the company's Website, the WWT "enables your computer to function as a virtual telescope — bringing together imagery from the world's best ground- and space-based telescopes for the exploration of the universe."

I saw a brief demonstration of the WWT at TED-x Caltech a few weeks ago, and it really is an impressive collection of astronomical data amassed by the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and other powerful instruments.

Users can pan all around the night sky and choose to zoom in on specific objects — in many different wavelengths. A few more clicks and you can access all kinds of facts and data about that specific part of the night sky, before moving on to explore a new section. Go on, folks at WWT, sell us on all the amazing things we'll see with your product:

"With WWT, you'll view the sky from multiple wavelengths. See the X-ray view of the sky and zoom into bright radiation clouds, then cross-fade into the visible light view and discover the cloud remnants of a supernova explosion from a thousand years ago. Switch to the hydrogen alpha view to see the distribution and illumination of massive primordial hydrogen cloud structures illuminated by high energy radiation from nearby stars in the Milky Way."

There also are "guided tours" on offer, headed by leading astronomers — folks such as Alyssa Goodman, who'll show you around the Milky Way galaxy and explain how stars and planets form, or the University of Chicago's Mike Gladders, who'll introduce you to the phenomenon of gravitational lensing.

The newest tour being offered is "John Huchra's Universe," in honor of the famed astronomer who died last October. Narrated by fellow Harvard astronomer Robert Kirshner, it "chronicles John's career and many scientific accomplishments, focusing on his quest to map the universe in three dimensions," according to a news release from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Huchra was much beloved by students and colleagues alike, mostly because of his passion for astronomy and his skill at sharing that passion with others. The son of a railroad conductor from New Jersey, Huchra fell in love with the stars as a child, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy from Caltech. He spent most of his professional career at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Among his most famous achievements was the CfA Redshift Survey he conducted with Margaret Geller (and Valerie de Lapparent), which mapped the entire large-scale structure of the universe. It produced one of the most iconic astronomy images of the late 1980s: the "CfA stickman," showing the Coma cluster distorted in redshift space. The survey also revealed the "Great Wall" of galaxies spanning more than 500 million light years of space — the largest cosmic "structure" (if one can call it that) yet discovered.

Before Huchra and Geller's work, astronomers had assumed that at such large scales, there would be a uniform distribution of galaxies. Instead (per Huchra's New York Times obituary), they found "that the galaxies seemed to be confined to great sheets arcing around enormous dark and presumably empty voids millions of light years across, clustering in dense knots where the sheets intersected." Geller dubbed it the "soap bubble" universe, and her analogy stuck.

There was one other anomaly discovered by Huchra in 1985: a perfect "Einstein cross", i.e., a type of gravitational lens. This one occurred because a galaxy in the Pegasus constellation aligned perfectly with a distant quasar, so much so that the gravitational field of the galaxy split the quasar's light into four separate images in a cross formation. It's now known as "Huchra's lens."

When you've got a gravitational lens named after you, a guided computer tour might pale in comparison. But I suspect Huchra would be delighted with what his colleagues — and the WorldWide Telescope folks — have wrought. Now he can share his passion for the universe with us in perpetuity, or at least as long as there are computers.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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