Home > Space Exploration > Google Earth Looks Skyward

Google Earth Looks Skyward

26-Aug-07 04:36 pm EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

Google’s latest expansion of its Google Earth mapping utility reverses the orientation of the application so that instead of looking down at the earth, the user finds themselves looking up at the sky.

Google Earth is quite the utility indeed, although not a very good replacement for some of the more popular planetarium software packages (like Starry Night), which may be the fancy of the backyard astronomer.  But though the environment of Google Earth, the sky itself becomes the new landscape, against which an index of data from a variety of sources has been made available, including the Hubble Space Telescope and its more powerful Earth-based cousins.

But how easy is it to find stuff and/or explore the known universe?  Well, I’m fortunate – as a child I was part of a youth organization called the "Manitoba Astronomy Club" (which, to my dismay is still in action with an estimated 20 members, yet still has no website!).  And that childhood enthusiasm for astronomy left me with a basic familiarity with the constellations of the sky and a fair bit of other errata about telescopes and astronomical phenomenon.  Without this, I suspect the astronomy neophyte might find themselves thoroughly lost.  By default, the star names aren’t event displayed, although selecting the appropriate layer in the left-hand pane fixes this.

Antares (a Sco) and nearby
objects magnified, courtesy
DSS Consortium via
Google Sky.

Details about Antares
appear when the user clicks
on the star – prompting the
appearance of the familiar
Google "info bubble".

So with the constellations displayed, finding the more familiar stars is pretty easy.  And perhaps the neatest feature is the ability to "zoom in" to those areas of the sky where a telescope of higher power has taken more detailed images.  By way of an example, I’ve included some screenshots of a randomly-selected area of the sky from last night; all listed at the right.  As you can see, Antares features prominently – since it’s the main subject of the example.  And to find out anything known about the star (including references to external websites), the familiar Google "information bubble" appears when the user clicks on the star with basic information and links to more detailed info.

And to add to this review, I thought I’d cover the "search" feature.  Back in the early days of Google Earth (and, for that matter, "Google Maps" – its web-based cousin), searches for places outside of the United States didn’t necessarily yield useful information, nor did the interface move to anything close to the desired target.  I couldn’t count the number of times I typed in "Ottawa" with some additional keywords trying to pull up a map of the city I live in – only to pull in Ottawa, Ohio rather than Ottawa, Illinois.

Of course, those issues were dealt with and there’s a much more natural query processing system associated with Google Maps.  When it comes to stars, fortunately astronomers tend to not re-name stars with the same names over and over again (as we do with cities and towns on Earth).  So, the searching seems to work well if you know the name of a stellar or galactic target.  To examine how well this worked, I went to the California and Carnegie Planet Search website, where a catalog of stars known to have planets around them are listed.  I picked as my target "HD 69830" – a star 41 light years from Earth (relatively close), with at least 3 planets ranging between 5 and 20 Earth masses in size (the outermost of these is orbiting in the star’s habitable zone or "green belt").And, voilà, the star was instantly matched in the search list, and Google Sky automatically panned away from Antares and centred on my target star.

Sadly, this is not the result for the moon or planets.  For these, Google has introduced a rather confusing system intended to track the position of planets and the moon in the sky on specific dates.  You’ll notice a "slider" control toward the top of the images (just to the left of the familiar "compass" gadget).  This operates in a fashion roughly analogous to Microsoft Word’s margin and tab controls.  Moving these around results in a kind of smear of both planets and stars for the start and end dates denoted by the position of these sliders.  And the search doesn’t seem to locate a particular planet or moon – regardless of the date set using the slider.  So finding these objects is a little troublesome at the moment.

Finally, there are still as yet a number of key, desirable features for an index of this kind still not yet available:

  • it’s not yet possible to add data about stars, which might be absent, yet acquirable from other websites – extending the advantages of community-based contributions about stellar phenomenon the way Google Earth has traditionally done,
  • there’s no horizon, nor any obvious way (I could find) to specify my own location on the Earth’s sruface to get an idea what the sky looks like right now, and
  • there’s no way to index the view of the sky (planets, moon, sun) to the current time, although there’s strangely a prompt in a properties window which allows one to specify a time zone – as if there were features dependant on this information, which there don’t yet seem to be.

These features will likely be made available in future versions, but it would have been good to have them available before the launch of the product.  It’s puzzling why this wasn’t forthcoming prior to release of the product.  But even as-is, it still offers the trappings of a tool which will ultimately prove very useful for indexing discoveries made about our galaxy and the surrounding universe – which will particularly be useful when trying to get data bout exoplanets and perhaps data from the terrestrial planet finder (launched early next decade) into the hands of the general public in a way that relates that information to the sky above.

Categories: Space Exploration
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Terry Glavin


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