Wednesday, May 14, 2008

New astronomy education websites

Both Microsoft and Google have released astronomy exploration projects to allow students and enthusiasts to explore the heavens, according to an article in the New York Times. Google Sky and Microsoft's new entry, WorldWide Telescope, promise to bring astronomy to the myspace generation, and I hope they succeed at that. However, I was more interested in a short line in the article that mentions a professional version of the Microsoft product is being developed in conjunction with the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

(I am disappointed that the Google team, with a stated desire to organize all the world's information, isn't the impetus for the professional product.)

When I arrived at graduate school, my first project, in 2003, was to analyze observations the group had taken in 1998 and 1999. No one had gotten around to looking at the images, because with the advent of CCD's, it is incredibly easy to collect data, and much more difficult to find people and time to analyze it. Additionally, there are several all sky surveys that are collecting massive amounts of data for one or a few particular reasons (such as finding planets), and the data could be used for so many more explorations. However, all the data needs to be reduced and refined to a common level of usable information. These projects at Microsoft and Google are hopefully the first step towards bringing large disparate data sets together for consistent usage. Wouldn't it be fantastic to plug in an area of the sky and see at a glance all the digitized data available from the last few years and then analyze that imagery over time using the different data sets? Telescope time wouldn't just be used by the group requesting the time, but anyone who finds a use for the data. New discoveries could be pulled from old datasets all the time, and new telescope time could be more efficiently allocated only on those areas that haven't received any attention.

There are certainly a lot of scientific and technical challenges standing in the way of a project like this. But I think Google has some pretty smart guys. I hope they can take a crack at it.

By the way, apologies for the absence of posts, while I was moving to a new apartment

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