Microsoft is boldly going where the company has never gone before and I am tempted to say, "an operating system that won't crash," but instead I will say, "into space."
The company, which obviously has time on its hands, has released "Microsoft WorldWide Telescope." which is a really cool and ill-named application. It should be "Universal Telescope," I think. But basically, it is Google Earth for the universe. It takes 13 terabytes of data from the universe's coolest telescopes, including the immortal Hubble, and provides a basically seamless view of the universe traveled by Captain Kirk, Bones and his buddies.
You have to install a small application on your PC. But after that, it's a pretty seamless experience. Interestingly, in one case, my installing it on a laptop running Windows Vista caused the machine to crash with a Blue Screen of Death, which is either ironic or Voyager phoning home.
The best part of this application is it shows the vast size of the universe and brings that home in some sort of scale that is really easy for children to understand. I hope to be able to give some of this experience to my kids.
I never will forget working on a volunteer project with some schoolchildren a few years ago and actually landing an appearance by a NASA engineer who brought with him some moon rocks. When he showed them to the fifth-graders during an outside classroom, I expected the sound of collective awe. Instead, the kids didn't seem to really care they were holding an actual moon rock. When I pointed out to the kids how cool it was, one boy pointed to the moon in the afternoon sky and said, "What's the big deal? It's right there!"
Anyway, the application is pre-populated with all kinds of celestial locations you can examine without looking throughout the entire vastness of space sort of a pre-populated space yellow pages, if you will. (I have not yet found Dave Bowman or the monolith, but I am still looking.) So just checking those out will take quite some time. Some are in higher resolution than others, but consider these places are light-years away, and don't expect crystal-clear images.
Google, of course, has a similar application called Google Sky that does roughly the same thing. If you have a Mac, the Google app is your only choice. The Microsoft one works only with Vista and XP. I would give the technical edge today to Microsoft's app, but I presume Google won't sit still for long. You can use them both and compare for yourself, too.
To get started with Microsoft's, head to www.worldwidetelescope.org. After the download, you can start your own explorations and even save them to recall or share with others as sort of a universal slide show or PowerPoint. If you want to use Google's, just launch your Web browser and head to sky.google.com. Both played nicely together on a laptop with a gig of RAM.Both of these programs are great examples of the Web and its power to educate.
James Derk is owner of CyberDads, a computer repair firm, and tech columnist for Scripps Howard News Service. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.