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The WorldWide Telescope

Microsoft Research has launched the public beta of its WorldWide Telescope, which transforms user's computers into virtual telescopes giving them the opportunity to pan and zoom around high resolution images of the heavens from the comfort of their own home. Described by Bill Gates as ‘a powerful tool for science and education,' the application weaves together the best images from telescopes on the ground and in space, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory. It's free of charge and only runs on Windows operating systems.

Ray Gould, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics who helped launch the Worldwide Telescope at the TED conference in March of this year, describes the tool ‘as a kind of magic carpet that lets you navigate through the universe where you want to go.' You can join astronomers and cosmologists on interactive tours of the sky - a good idea as it take time to work out exactly what you can do - or create your own tours and share them with friends. Gould believes ‘a community of storytellers will evolve and emerge' in which we all offer our own personal narrative of the universe.

Google Sky and Stellarium already offer the amateur astronomer a similar service, but even if the WorldWide Telescope proves not be so very different from the competition it will still be welcomed by budding Patrick Moores. Before you download it make sure your computer meets the system requirements, and then start imagining how Galileo must have felt when he first saw the night sky through a convex lens in 1609.

2013