Monday, December 18, 2006

"Google Sky" coming soon?

This week, NASA announced a strategic partnership with Google to make the agency's massive archive of data more accessible to the public. In the initial phases of the project, the Internet search giant will integrate 3D maps of the moon and Mars into an interface similar to its popular "Google Earth" software, allowing anyone "to experience a virtual flight over the surface of the moon or through the canyons of Mars".

As a simple demonstration of how Google can collaborate fruitfully with space scientists, take a look at the "Google Mars" project, on the web since last March. Working with a group of NASA researchers at Arizona State University, Google adapted their intuitive Maps interface to display optical, infrared and radar data of the red planet. In place of local businesses, the Mars maps include information bubbles marking the locations of major craters, mountains, and the landing sites of robotic spacecraft.

NASA has numerous archives of astronomical data that are already available to the general public, but even some astronomers have a difficult time finding and navigating these websites. For example the Multi-mission Archive, hosted by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, allows anyone to download images and other data from the Hubble Space Telescope and many other NASA missions dating back to the 1970's. While the concept is useful (it beats trying to get the data from each mission website individually), the search interface is needlessly complicated and the query results are almost inscrutable. It's not hard to see how Google could make a significant contribution to making these data more accessible.

My own model for a search-friendly archive of astronomical data would be called "Google Sky". Imagine the Google Maps interface populated with the high resolution color images generated by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (supplemented by the old Palomar Sky Survey to include the entire southern sky). Now imagine that when you search for a specific star or galaxy, the map would zoom into that location and allow you to switch to an infrared or ultraviolet view, just as you can turn on satellite imagery with Google Maps. Finally, the "Find Businesses" feature in the Maps interface would be replaced with "Find Data" -- allowing seamless access to complete archives of ground-based and satellite data that are ready to download and use. It may sound like a dream, but with Google and NASA on the same team, it could soon be a reality.


Travis Metcalfe said...

The answer to this question is now evidently: yes. Less than a few weeks after this post, the Associated Press reported that Google had joined forces with the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) project, which will image the entire sky every 3 days beginning in 2013. Google will help host and index the resulting 30 Terabytes of nightly images, bringing real-time movies of the entire sky within a click of a mouse.

Travis Metcalfe said...

Even better, the version I envisioned using the Sloan Digital Sky Survey data actually exists, at Try it!