Six Characters in Search of a Blogger

10.7 The Seventh Day: We Are All Made of Stars

Thanks to this week’s Special Guest Author, Iain B.  (my husband)

iya_logo1This week’s selection of characters has covered a fairly broad range of astronomers and astrophysicists: historical, professional and amateur.

As I’ve tried to show, Astronomy is probably the only scientific discipline which is as accessible to a schoolchild as it is to an Ivy League research professor, because ultimately the sky is the same for everybody and changes little over time. The only limiting factor is cost.

Traditionally the level of technical equipment available to the professionals is generally much greater than the average amateur can access.  Whereas amateurs may typically use binoculars or small telescopes ranging from a size of 6 cm at $150 up to 30 cm for $4000 or more, professionals have access to huge telescopes of several meters in size, costing multiple millions of dollars (for example Keck with its dual 10m primary mirrors cost $231 million to build, and $47,000 per night to use at 2002 prices).

But as part of the International Year of Astronomy 2009, all that is about to change…

Because currently in beta testing are two exciting new software applications: “Google Sky” and Microsoft “WorldWide Telescope.”  These two free internet-based applications will provide access to photographs and other data recorded from many of the world’s top-level research telescopes.  Google Sky uses a web interface at, and WorldWide Telescope (which is currently a Windows-only application, but will launch a Web 2.0 interface soon) uses one at

Here are examples of Google Sky and WorldWide Telescope:

image from Google Sky

image from Google Sky



image from WorldWide Telescope

image from WorldWide Telescope













WorldWide Telescope is actually a continuation of the TerraServer project (originally formed by computer scientist Jim Gray at Microsoft Research), using the previous databases and infrastructure created for Microsoft Virtual Earth.  It has now been extended to include whole-sky digital maps which in some cases are updated as frequently as every three days (and if you do happen to purchase a “Go-To” telescope, these computer programs can even be used to point your own telescope at what you are seeing on the screen, so you have a live real-time view).

So, why do I think the development of these software programs is important?  Because for the first time since the days of Tycho Brahe and Galileo, the playing field is truly level; and Joe (and Josephine) Average have the same access to high quality astronomy data as professionals.

We are all made of stars, but not many of us take the time to stop and look up at them.  But now, without even owning a telescope, anyone with a computer and internet access can access near-realtime images of the same quality that professional scientists use for their research work.

And to Astronomy, I think that may become just as important as the invention of the telescope itself.

So, that’s it for my week on the blog.  We now return you to your regular programming, already in progress…

-Iain B.

Author’s Comment: What’s Next for NASA under the Obama Administration?


could NASA's Constellation program be in jeopardy under the Obama Administration?

Uh oh, spaghettios: could NASA's Constellation program be in jeopardy under the Obama Administration?

NASA chief Mike Griffin caused a bit of a ruckus several weeks ago when the Obama Administration transition team came a knockin’.  Griffin, whose baby is the Constellation program (which was a direct result of President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration policy in 2004) has gotten very testy during questioning by Obama representatives about the state of the project.  

Check out Dvorak Uncensored’s “NASA resisting Obama efforts to ‘check under the hood’.”   It looks like change may not be such a welcome thing in some government agencies.

And apparently NASA has some competition.  An article on suggests that the incoming Administration has met with “a group of renegade space vehicle designers” who are offering a less expensive alternative to the Constellation project.  This, the Jupiter DIRECT initiative, proposes to recycle parts from the retired Space Shuttle program, thereby saving tens of millions of dollars, as well as trimming years off the timeline for launch.  For a more detailed view on the origins of this “renegade” plan, see David Noland’s great article in Popular Mechanics magazine, “NASA & Its Discontents:  Frustrated Engineers Battle with NASA over the Future of Spaceflight.”

Of course, President-Elect Obama has made his discontentment with the Bush Administration’s position on NASA quite public.  In a letter to Congressional leaders in September 2008, he outlined steps Congress should take to preserve the United States’ investment in the International Space Station, as well as called for preservation of the Space Shuttle program beyond 2010 (the proposed year of its retirement) to avoid the U.S. being dependent upon–and paying–Russia for transporting U.S. astronauts aboard Soyuz for some years until a viable NASA alternative was available.