March 22, 2007, New Scientist: WikiSky brings sky gazing to the (online) masses


Here’s the perfect toy for all us townies who’ve had our night goggles fogged over by light pollution from streetlamps – WikiSky. It’s an interactive map of the heavens, a sort of Google Earth that looks outwards rather than inwards, as it were.

The site features a map of more than half a billion astronomical objects. You can navigate around it easily by clicking and dragging the map and using a zoom-in/zoom-out sidebar. You can also search on specific objects by name from a database, and it seems pretty tolerant of requests that use informal terms. (Ask for a lobster or a rotten egg and it will find you one.)

The great thing is that you can toggle to a second view, which shows the zoo of weird and wonderful objects recorded by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The SDSS has been mapping the cosmos using a 2.5-metre telescope in New Mexico since 1998.

In SDSS-mode, you can see everything from stellar nurseries to the remnants of exploded stars and huge, swirly galaxies – all in a glorious array of colours. It’s impressively speedy, too. Unfortunately, the SDSS survey doesn’t cover the whole sky, but the patches it has done are mesmerising.

In either mode, a little yellow note pops up when your mouse hovers over an interesting object, and by clicking on it, you link to further information and pictures. If that weren’t enough, the WikiSky team plans to add solar system objects closer to home, so you can watch Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and co as they wander against the starry background. They hope to add images from surveys other than the SDSS as well.

It’s good enough to be addictive already though. I homed in on 55 Cancri, a bright double star that has four Jupiter- and Neptune-class planets in tow. For all we know, it might have a rocky habitable planet like Earth as well.

Makes you think – is some alien out there WikiSky-ing me back?

Hazel Muir, New Scientist writer



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