Just before leaving on this trip I downloaded and installed Microsoft Research’s new World Wide Telescope application (WWT – it’s free). I haven’t been able to spend much time with it yet, and my hotel Wifi connection is rather slow, but it’s pretty clear that this is a fabulously well thought-out piece of software, light years ahead of the “Sky” extensions in Google Earth. The closest thing I have seen interface-wise is Stellarium, which is still great (and also free) as a standalone planetarium program and intuitive “sky browser” (WWT requires a web connection to download imagery in real time as you pan and zoom around the sky). But WWT surpasses Stellarium in so many ways.
For starters, the WWT interface is both extremely rich and extremely “clean” and simple to navigate. The night sky is the “star attraction” and is presented in very attractive form despite its being a mosaic of imagery from many different sources. But thumbnails and tools at the top and bottom of the screen suggest many objects or themes to explore and WWT quickly takes you to those places, while helping you to keep track of where you are looking. There are also multimedia “guided tours” of which I have so far experienced only one (their content first needs to download which takes some time here since they seem to include sound for the narration in addition to the scripts used to control WWT itself during the tour). WWT provides authoring tools which are said to be very easy to use, so teachers and enthusiasts will presumably be adding to the initial tours by professional astronomers.
There I things I have heard about in the video interviews here, but have not yet tried. For example, overlays of sky features in multiple spectral regions (visible, IR, x-ray, etc. with a cross-fade slider). The professionals who have tried out preview versions have high hopes for WWT as an educational and community-building tool. One thing I miss (based on Stellarium) is a more convincing version of the ground when you specify an observing location – having a horizon ringed with trees really adds to the you-are-there experience in Stellarium (maybe this is possible but I missed it so far - there are several Mars panoramas from Spirit and Opportunity). I also noticed a bit of strange “pixilation” when zooming in on objects, though this could be a video driver issue. But based on my limited experience with WWT, I’m optimistic that the experts are right, and it will be a ground-breaking and unifying science application for amateurs and professionals alike. In any case, WWT sure is cool and fun to play with.
P.S. Here is a more detailed initial review of WWT.