Hubble's Universe Unfiltered

  • March 10, 2013

    Tour Guide to the Universe

    I may call myself an Outreach Astrophysicist, but sometimes I'm really a tour guide to the universe. The picture accompanying this post shows one of my presentations in front of the 20-million-pixel display wall in the NASA Experience Tent at SXSW. This particular one presented the science discoveries that will be enabled by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) when it is launched (slated for 2018).

    A really cool aspect of these presentations is the software we are using: Microsoft Research's WorldWide Telescope (WWT). This free software allows one to explore the night sky in remarkable detail. You can pan across the entire sky traversing stars and constellations. One can zoom into detail all the way down to Hubble's finest resolution.

    The software includes Hubble images at their highest pixel count so you can browse and explore many of the telescope's most famous images in their proper places on the night sky. Then one can go further and contrast Hubble pictures to the infrared views from the Spitzer Space Telescope, or the X-ray imagery of the Chandra X-ray Obeservatory, or many other sources.

    Beyond the 2D view of the night sky, WWT includes a 3D exploration mode for viewing the solar system, then out to the local stars, and then out to galaxies millions to billions of light-years away. One can examine Earth in great detail — much like web-mapping applications, but WWT extends this to other planets and moons of the solar system. There is even a panorama mode with high-resolution views from Apollo missions to the Moon and a variety of missions to the surface of Mars.

    These WWT modes are really great for showing the public the wonders of the universe. Unlike standard presentation slides, WWT shows the imagery in its proper context. I can show a long zoom into the tiny portion of the sky covered by the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. I can fly across the solar system and a million miles from Earth where a 3D model of JWST sits in its proper orbit. This is astronomy exploration software and, though it takes much more work to prepare, it really sets my presentations in the astronomical frame of reference.

    I've enjoyed using WWT for years, and I've created a few tours for fun. You can find my Orion Nebula tour under the "Guided Tours" tab of the software. For our JWST event at SXSW, I created four tours for both myself and other presenters to show on the huge display. It has reminded me of the incredible potential inherent in the software and re-invigorated my enthusiasm for using WWT more in my work. With the proper software, one can transforn an astronomy lecture into a private tour of the universe.