According to the press release,
“The WorldWide Telescope is a powerful tool for science and education that makes it possible for everyone to explore the universe,” said Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft. “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.”
Bizarrely, the website is a nasty 100% Flash affair (presumably no one told Microsoft Research about Silverlight?!??), but the download is small and easy to install. Of course the disadvantage of that is that you have to be online to use the thing as it uses web services to fetch the image data as required.
Once installed and running, it is a really nice program to use. One can pan around the sky and it shows the constellations and objects of interest in those constellations. Alternatively, you can flip it around and point at the Earth and zoom right in. Below are three screen shots (scaled down to fit on my blog) of some constellations, Mercury and a satellite image centred on my home town of Lewes. I was a bit disappointed that this seemed to be the extent to which I could zoom in. The satellite view on Google Maps lets me zoom in close enough to see cars parked on the streets for example and I was hoping this program could do the same.
In addition to letting you explore by yourself, the program also has a nice set of guided tours that include a commentary. These include lots of extra details that aren’t available when you explore by yourself (as far as I could tell), such as this image showing how the size of the assumed black hole a the centre of our galaxy:
Black hole at the centre of our galaxy
All in all, a very impressive beta. As it is free, I’d recommend everyone download it and take it for a spin…