IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Download a new telescope

msnbc.com
Click for video: Msnbc.com's Dara Brown reports

on the beta release of the WorldWide Telescope.

After years of thinking and months of internal testing (and occasional tears), Microsoft Research is releasing its WorldWide Telescope software for the public to download and play with. The program requires more computer firepower than other free online astronomy guides, such as Google Sky or Stellarium. But the payoff for the eyes, ears and mind is high enough to make me think about upgrading my hardware.

The last time I caught upgrade fever, the motivation was to watch online video without the computer going into a stall. This time, I'll need to get more memory for my home computer so I don't miss out on the audio and text as I take a tour of the final frontier.

Fortunately, my computer at work fits the minimum system requirements - including a 2 GHz processor, 1 gigabyte of RAM and a 128MB 3-D graphics card - so I was able to download an advance copy of the beta software from Microsoft and try it out late last week. (Microsoft is a partner in the msnbc.com joint venture.)

Like other astronomical guides, the WorldWide Telescope takes images from several world-class telescopes and knits them together into a seamless virtual night sky you can navigate with your mouse. You can click on celestial objects to get more information, from the program itself or from the Web. You can even figure out what the night sky will look like from your location, although other free offerings (such as Heavens-Above on the Web) make that job easier.

What sets this telescope apart is the growing selection of multimedia guided tours, often voiced by astronomers from the Space Telescope Science Institute, the Spitzer Science Center, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and other world-class institutions.

Microsoft Research
A portion of the World Wide Telescope's browser window shows the Spitzer Space

Telescope's view of the Pleiades star cluster in the the software's Finder Scope.

Clicking on the cluster brings up a fact box with links to more information.

More than 30 tours have been created so far. You can sit back and watch as a professional astronomer (or even a 6-year-old kid) takes control of your browser-style window and shows you the sights. You can pause the tour and take a look around on your own, then resume the show or jump onto a related tour.

You also can create your own tour, or download tours from other content creators - for example, through the online communities already set up by Astronomy magazine, Meade 4M and Sky & Telescope. Several tours in the first batch are voiced by Curtis Wong, the Microsoft researcher who heads up the WorldWide Telescope project and gave me an advance peek at the public beta.

"We are working on more intro tours as well," he told me in an e-mail.

Extra goodies are included with the software: You can turn the telescope toward Earth, zooming through aerial imagery a la Google Earth. (The maximum resolution is not as good as Google Earth's, however.) You can scan the surface of other planets in the same way. You can also mouse your way around a couple of jaw-dropping 360-degree panoramas from Mars.

The program is powered by Microsoft's Visual Experience Engine, which is optimized for smooth panning and zooming. Wong hinted that the same architecture could be used for other products as well - such as panoramic virtual-reality tours of earthly destinations. (My favorites in this genre are at Panoramas.dk and PeterMcCready.com.)

Is the WorldWide Telescope ready for prime time? Well ... my work computer wasn't always up to the challenge, even though it squeaked by on the system requirements. Occasionally the program quit unexpectedly - for example, when I clicked in the wrong place while trying to do a search, or when I tried to cancel one tour and open up another one while I had, um, four other programs running.

But this is just the beta testing phase, after all. Check back with me six months from now, after the software has been around the block a few times - and after I've installed that memory upgrade.

The WorldWide Telescope is available for free download via http://www.worldwidetelescope.org (Windows XP or Vista required). Check the Web site for full system requirements and support material.

Update for 3 a.m. ET:Microsoft has issued its news release on the WorldWide Telescope's release, and Astronomy magazine has a package of articles explaining the software and its participation in the project. Sky & Telescope and Meade 4M also weigh in.