Microsoft and NASA bring you … the universe!

25 Mar 2009

Online users will soon be able to gain access to planetary images and data under a Space Act Agreement, through which Microsoft and NASA will develop the infrastructure to put NASA’s content – including the Worldwide Telescope – on the internet.

Under the plan, users will be able to see high-resolution scientific images and data from Mars and the Moon.

“Making NASA’s scientific and astronomical data more accessible to the public is a high priority for NASA, especially given the new administration’s recent emphasis on open government and transparency,” said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Under the joint agreement, NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, will process and host more than 100 terabytes, or 20,000 DVDs of data. WorldWide Telescope will incorporate the data later in 2009 and feature imagery from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

Launched in August 2005, MRO has been examining Mars with a high-resolution camera and five other instruments since 2006, and has returned more data than all other Mars missions combined.

“This collaboration between Microsoft and NASA will enable people around the world to explore new images of the moon and Mars in a rich, interactive environment through the WorldWide Telescope,” said Tony Hey, corporate vice-president of Microsoft External Research.

“WorldWide Telescope serves as a powerful tool for computer-science researchers, educators and students to explore space and experience the excitement of computer science.”

Also available will be images from a camera aboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). Scheduled to launch this May, LRO will spend at least a year in a low, polar orbit approximately 30 miles above the lunar surface, collecting detailed information about the lunar environment.

“NASA is excited to collaborate with Microsoft to share its portfolio of planetary images with students and lifelong learners,” said Simon P Worden, director of NASA Ames Research Centre.

“This is a compelling astronomical resource and will help to inspire our next generation of astronomers.”

The agreement builds on a prior collaboration with Microsoft that enabled NASA to develop 3D interactive Microsoft Photosynth collections of the space- shuttle launch pad and other facilities at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre last year. The images featured on Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope will supplement existing imagery and data available on NASA’s website, the Planetary Data System and other sources.

The WorldWide Telescope is a Web 2.0 visualisation environment that functions as a virtual telescope, bringing together imagery from ground- and space-based telescopes for a seamless, rich media-guided exploration of the universe. Through WorldWide Telescope and Microsoft technology, people will be able to pan and zoom in on these images, and on the most interesting locations on Mars and the moon, without distorted views at the poles.

Attracting millions of users since its release last spring, WorldWide Telescope provides a base for teaching astronomy, scientific discovery and computational science. Tours with narration, music, text and graphics create interactive learning experiences that allow people to search, explore and discover the universe in a new and unique manner.

Additional information and a free download of WorldWide Telescope can be found at

To further integrate the planetary data into WorldWide Telescope, Ames is developing a suite of planetary data-processing tools. These software tools convert historic and current space imagery data into a variety of formats and images of the moon, Mars and other planetary bodies, which are readily available for easy browsing and use by the general public, enabling the creation of enhanced educational tools for students and teachers.

“NASA has a wealth of images and data, from the Apollo and Lunar Orbiter missions to Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Mercury Messenger flybys,” said NASA Ames chief information officer, Chris Kemp.

“This collaboration makes it possible for NASA to leverage exciting new Microsoft technologies to make NASA’s data – and America’s space programme – more accessible to the public,” Kemp added.

By John Kennedy

Pictured:This image shows the Proctor Crater on Mars. The bright, small ridges are sand ripples, and the larger, darker bedforms are sand dunes. This is a representation of the new NASA planetary images that will be featured in Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope later this year, as part of a joint Space Act Agreement