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Twinkle, twinkle, little star – WorldWide Telescope – webDotWiz column April 9 2009

Eta Carinae Eta Carinae

You may have been one of those who participated in one of the spectacular autumn nights at the Rushworth Observatory recently and your curiosity has been prodded to follow up on more sky viewing. Alternatively you have always wondered how you can explore the sky but don’t own or know anybody with a telescope.

The Microsoft WorldWide Telescope program is just what you need!

You can either download WWT from www.worldwidetelescope.org so as to run it on your computer or use the online version at www.worldwidetelescope.org/webclient (Mac users rejoice). WWT uses imagery from all the major astronomical sources such as the Hubble Space Telescope and earth-based observatories. There are some differences between the WWT desktop program and the web-based one, such as the latter not being able to include some highlights such as the 3D solar tour.

Getting started

After download and install, when you start WWT for the first time you may be overwhelmed by all the possible options. So let’s keep things simple for the minute.

The menu across the top of the screen consists of Explore, Guided Tours, Search, Community, Telescope, View and Settings. At the bottom left under the Field of View is where you can choose what you want to Look At (e.g, WWT is initially set to view the sky but you can change it to the Solar System, for example. Alongside is Imagery (which is initially set to Digitized sky survey Optical) and there are plenty of options from which you to choose as you extend your explorations. To find more information about the different types of imagery available in WWT, see the How To page at the WWT website.

To see what WWT is capable of it’s best to choose Guided Tours from the top menu. There’s a Learning WWT choice but you may want something more exciting and there’s plenty to choose from, such as touring nebulas, galaxies, planets, black holes, star clusters and supernova. These tours have been created by professional astronomers and are often accompanied by a voiceover.


A click on the Explore button brings up a large list of different collections including collections you create, the solar system, planets and moons, constellations and astrophotography. Unlike a physical telescope located at, say, Melbourne, WWT enables us to view constellations whether they be in our southern celestial view or the northern sky. You can check this out by choosing Andromeda from the list of Constellations and checking the  celestial sphere at the bottom right of the WWT screen. Choose Centaurus, for example, to see the difference (Centaurus is on the second page of the eight page of constellation collections as shown on the right-hand side of the WWT screen).

Having chosen the Centaurus collection, you’ll notice that the bottom pane fills with objects that are related to your current field of view. By hovering over each image, WWT will show you where that object is located in the sky. For example, hover over Scattered light from the Boomerang nebula to locate it in the field of view. Another object to locate is supernova SN1006.

Getting help

You’ll find WWT’s help section by clicking the bottom half of the Explore button. When starting out, perhaps just confine yourself to a couple of topics such as Getting Started and Exploring with WWT. Whenever you come across some new jargon (common astronomical terms like azimuth and right ascension), then consult the glossary in WWT help.

Panning and zooming

Staying with the Centaurus collection, you can pan around and zoom in and out of the field of view. To pan, hold won the left mouse button and drag the view. To zoom, use your mouse wheel or use the Page Up/Page Down keys or the plus (+) and minus (-) keys.

Note that as you zoom in, the list of objects that are viewable changes in the bottom pane.

Change your location

Under the View menu you can set the location from where you’re viewing the sky through your WorldWide Telescope. By default, WWT is set to a Microsoft building in Redmond, Seattle, Washington State, i.e. you’re viewing from the northern hemisphere. Click the the Setup button and choose Melbourne AU from the list of world cities but bear in mind you can always change this setting if you want to be somewhere else in the world. See what happens when you tick the View from this location box – you’ll have a horizon. Perhaps you may want to leave this unticked.

Change the viewing time

Also under the View menu is Observing time. This setting enables you to do a Dr. Who and speed back or forward in time and gives you the means to observe planetary motion. For other things to do, see WWT’s help.

The Finder Scope

Go back to Explore – Constellations – Centaurus. Now right click in the Field of View and up pops the Finder Scope. You can drag it around and, as you do so, you’ll be informed of any object in its view. Close to the centre in the Field of View you should be able to find galaxy NGC 4835. The Finder Scope gives you the options of doing some research on this object or you can show the actual object. Note that the Alt and Az (altitude and azimuth) numbers are constantly changing. After all, you’re viewing the sky through a telescope and the earth is slowly rotating so you’re changing position relative to the celestial sphere.

Take a screenshot

You can take a screenshot of your current view that you can save as a JPG file and then use later in a Word document, for example. You might be looking for an object that depicts the awesomeness of the universe and WWT provides you with plenty of choice. Click the bottom of the View menu button and choose Copy current view image. Note that this option doesn’t work very well when observing planets in a closeup view because they’re moving across the sky and you might get a double image when you paste into your graphics program. An alternative is to use the screen clip function in Microsoft OneNote.


Read through the spectacular autumn nights at the Rushworth Observatory article and find the objects in WorldWide Telescope that people saw live in the telescope at the Rushworth Observatory. For example, choose WWT’s search menu, type in 47 Tucanae and the Field of View will locate this object. Right click to bring up the Finder Scope for more information.

Another object to find is the Orion nebula and there’s plenty of exploration to do here including imagery of Orion from Hubble.

Take a tour of the solar system in 3D by choosing Solar System under Look At (bottom left of WWT window) and then 3D Solar System View should pop up under Imagery (alongside Look At).

Looking for more information?

There are numerous astronomy sites but to get started and be able to easily follow what’s being discussed webDotWiz advises the Cosmic Log and Space sections at www.msnbc.msn.com. The Month in Pictures feature is a handy way to view images and come across new objects you can then find in WWT. As well there’s some reference material about the formation of stars, nebulas, constellations and supernovas.

2009 is the International Year of Astronomy so look up the site at www.astronomy2009.org.au for special events and sitings.


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