So, today Microsoft released their long awaited "World Wide Telescope". I've been eagerly awaiting this release. I love a lot of the free astronomy applications that are out there, including AstroPlanner, Google Sky and Stellarium to name but a few. But this software release promised to deliver quite a lot, and I think it does.
The software is online. You download an executable that is stored locally, and it then hooks up to the net to get the data to drive its display. You actually have access to a very nice range of telescope data, including data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, different infra-red views, the US Naval Observatory and various radio observatories. The list goes on and on. It's quite exhaustive and could be bewildering to newcomers (to them, I recommend starting off with the Digital Sky Survey).
The interface is very user friendly and quite intuitive. You can explore different types of objects fairly easily including galaxies, nebulae and even the Messier Catalog. You can search for specific objects, say a cluster or nebula, by their scientific/catalog designation or even their common name (e.g. "Orion Nebula"). For more advanced users, you can also plug in RA and DEC coordinates and let the software take you there.
Another cool feature of this is the Guided Tour feature. Just select this feature, wait for the software to communicate to home base over the Net, then take a tour of galaxies, planets, surverys etc. My favorite so far is the "Interesting Objects" tour, which takes you for a very cool spin around the universe, checking out the more exotic features that are out there.
I was very impressed, however, with the Telescope function. Although I haven't tested this yet, this entails being able to drive your GOTO scope using the World Wide Telescope software. You need to download an additional piece of software, but once done, you could really set yourself up for a fun astronomical experience. You could select a guided tour, let the software run through multiple objects based on the tour you select and let it slew your scope to each object. To me, that's a brilliant idea. Provided you can set up your scope and laptop somewhere where you have Net access (Wifi would be best!) you're in for a pretty nifty tour of the heavens! I think this functionality could also serve as a very good teaching tool in the field for public star parties. I will try this next time I am out at Canyon of the Eagles.
One word of caution, this can be a bit of a resource hog. When running it on my laptop, other applications do come to a standstill from time-to-time. It's somewhat minimal though, so not too bad.
I guess this has a lot of serious scientific applications for more advanced astronomers. For the serious amateur astronomer, this free software presents amazing value through it's rich dataset, intuitive interface and telescope control functionality. I also sat down with my kids tonight and showed it to them, and they just loved it.
A big thumbs up from Phil!