Project lets users explore the cosmos from a PC

The WorldWide Telescope program debuted in May 2008 and includes images from the Hubble Space Telescope, Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and many more sources. Users can browse through the galaxy at their leisure or take guided tours developed by astronomers, academics, and sometimes very smart middle schoolers.

“The U.S. really needs to get re-stimulated by science,” said Tony Hey, corporate vice president of Microsoft External Research, “and we’re trying to do that by providing full access, in a visually stunning and understandable way, to astronomers’ data and research.”

The night sky project, as well as the Mars 3D project, began 50 years ago as photos were taken of the night sky by ground-based survey telescopes. Over five decades, thousands of images were taken by NASA and stored with the Digitized Sky Survey. The challenge then became: How can scientists take these various images and make them into a single, unified image for exploring via computer?

According to Hey, that’s where Microsoft’s Project Trident came in.

Built on the Windows Workflow Foundation, Trident is a “scientific workflow workbench,” an open-source program that allows scientists to visualize and explore data; compose, run, and catalog experiments as workflows; and estimate the cost of the resources that such a workflow will require. Microsoft’s research department developed Trident as a tool for oceanographers to analyze and synthesize data coming from sensors on the ocean floor, but it became a logical choice to analyze and piece together data about the night sky, Hey said.

Using Trident and the DryadLINQ interface for Microsoft’s .NET platform, a programming environment for writing parallel data applications running on large computer clusters, scientists were able to combine thousands of images and systematically remove differences in exposure, brightness, noise floor, and color saturation—creating a “terapixel” image: a complete, spherical, seamless, panoramic rendering of the night skies that, if displayed at full size, would require 50,000 high-definition televisions to view.