Google Sky

Google today released an update to Google Earth which adds the night sky, complete with images of galaxies and nebulae, as well as planetary motion, wikipedia links and constellations. A cheezeball video on the GE website introduces the basics (update: much much much better video here). This sounded most exciting, so I downloaded the update.

It is, initially, underwhelming.

The positions of the objects base themselves around your location in Google Earth, so I set it to my address and hit the ‘sky’ button. I saw black, with lines and coloured dots. Not as beautiful as I was hoping. There is no artificial horizon, so you start essentially floating in the middle of a black sphere. A myriad of constellation lines and names takes up much of the screen. I guess some people are interested in arbitrary groups of stars; I’m not. Thankfully, they can be easily turned off in a Layer panel similar to Google Earth’s.

Slightly disappointed, I played around with the layers. ‘Planets in Motion’ adds a slider, which when dragged shows the movement of the planets over the next three months. This was kinda fun. My search for Saturn failed, so I scrolled around manually until I spotted it, and zoomed in.

Google Sky screenshotAt which point: wow.

Once you start to zoom, GS downloads higher-resolution images in the same way as GE. And what images! Starry Night and other astronomy programs can map the stars, but don’t use real photographs, and it makes a hell of a difference. I haven’t tested it fully, but they seem to cover most, if not all, of the sky. The milky-way is a patchwork of glowing dust. The ring around Polaris is a bit weird, but everything else seems to be very high-quality. Hubble images are correctly located – check out the orion and horsehead nebulae (searching for stars / other objects seems to work better than planets). And you can keep zooming and zooming and zooming.

There is nothing like looking at images of billions and billions of stars. It’s astonishing.

The red and blue dots represent interesting sights: the Messier objects are included, all with associated information, along with the 12000-object New General Catalog and Yale Bright Star catalog. Between them these pick out the most interesting items in the sky, and each click brings fresh wonder.

The only obvious omission is the artificial horizon. Perhaps they’re concerned about competing with commercial products such as Starry Night. But Picasa is free and possibly the best image-manager out there, regardless of price, so this seems unlikely. Hopefully they’ll add one later – being able to view an easy-to-understand map of the sky above your head would be wonderful.

Google’s massive database means there’s huge potential here. I want to zoom in on Mars and see the Spirit and Odyssey photos. I want to see moon craters, comets and the real-time position of the international space station. I want to be able to switch to infra-red.

Don’t let the initial impressions put you off. Search for ‘ultra deep field’, and you’ll see objects which were exposed at the rate of one photon per minute. This is light from over 13 billion years ago, when the universe had barely begun. This is an amazing thing to release for free, and worth spending time with.

Update: From the discussion forum:

We had the horizon in during beta testing and the testers recommended
removing it because it was very confusing. Instead, you go somewhere
on Earth and then click SKY and see what is overhead.

We could consider bringing the horizon back, but it was confusing.

We really want Sky and Earth integrated….someday

The ecliptic could be added. We will think about it!

That’s a shame…Hopefully enough people are complaining about it that it’ll be back. The same post pointed out that CTRL-L will display the sphere’s grid, which makes the view a little more comprehensible, but is unfortunately bright red…