Google Sky: Microwaves

I've just been having a quick play with this KML file for Google Sky. It's the data from the WMAP mission, put together so that it overlays the sky (although the "Earth, Sky, there's no difference" quirk does mean that it can also appear as a "skin" for the Earth — which looks kind of odd).

I'm finding that having that image overlaid on the sky, especially when I dial down the transparency, is really helpful in understanding what some of the "hot spots" (for want of a better phrase?) really are.


SIMBAD, ruby, and a little bit of hacking

Caution: Contains geekness

Following Al's suggestion in a comment yesterday, I decided to take a look at the name resolver web service. Never having worked with this sort of stuff before it took a little bit of reading (even more so since perl and me fell out a long time ago so I tend to use ruby when messing about with script-like stuff) but I finally got something up and running.

I've knocked together a very simply test script called aresolve. The only point of it is to take a name of something on the command line and print some information about it (in this case the RA/Dec and all aliases).

And it works:

davep@hagbard:~/temp$ ./aresolve M45
RA...: 56.8500000
Dec..: +24.1166667
Alias: M 45
Alias: C 0344+239
Alias: Cl Melotte 22
Alias: H 0346+24
Alias: [KPR2004b] 47
Alias: OCl 421.0


Yes, I know, to those who do this sort of stuff every day it's probably no big deal but, well, you know, when you try something yourself for the first time...

So, thanks to Al, I've got a solution. Now to go find a problem...


Straw Scope

Via this Jodrell Bank twitter

The @LovellTelescope has been recreated in straw near Nantwich: http://www.snugburys.co.uk/sculpture.htm
How totally pointless and amazingly cool is that?

More Google Sky

Yes, yes, I know, Google Sky is so yesterday...

Continuing on with the theme of the point and purpose of Google Sky, I see that even Phil Plait has taken the easy route to reviewing it and decided that it isn't as good as some venerable planetarium software. Well dur!

Like I said yesterday, I think it's missing the point to look at Google Sky like that. This is how you should look at Google Sky:

I've spent the afternoon poking around with the internals of the VOEvent broker and the KML documentation and I currently have a live network link (KML) connected to the broker. This means that any OGLE, Robonet-1.0, ESSENCE, SDSS, GCN or other event messages that flow across the backbone will be automatically published to Google Sky.
See where this is heading? See that it's about data and information sharing? See how it's not about trying to be yet another bloody planetarium?

The two big problems I see with the whole Google Sky approach at the moment are this: First, there's no online version. By that I mean there's no sky.google.com in the same way we've got maps.google.com. I think that's a serious downer. Providing a way of embedding maps into other sites is seriously useful and I think it's one of the really big wins of the whole Google Maps/Earth arena.

The second big problem I see at the moment is that, with Google Sky, the only extension service that appears to be available is via KML. What I've not yet seen in the documentation is any hint of any ability to "search" and find things as part of some presentation. If that doesn't make sense, consider an example:

Suppose I wanted to knock up a layer that presents my observing logs. As it happens, I don't record the RA/Dec of the objects I observe, ever. What I do record are names and IDs of such objects. So, for example, I know all the times that I've observed M13. To create a KML for Google Sky I need a way of converting "M13" into RA/Dec. From what I've seen of the documentation so far there's no obvious way of doing this.

Over in the Google Maps/Earth arena, this problem is covered. There's ways of, for example, turning a postal code into a lat/lon. So, in the Google universe, is there or will there be an API for turning Messier IDs or NGCs into positions in the sky? And, if not, why not?

All of which brings me to the point that does disappoint me about Google Sky. There's a project out that that has been addressing the above issues and has been doing it for some time. I first noticed it late last year. It's Sky-Map.org.

Now, at this point, I was going to point to a couple of examples of how you can do handy little things with the Sky-Map.org API, how it has the astronomical equivalent of the post code lookup facilities I was talking about above. Problem is, while Sky-Map.org itself seems to be up and running, the documentation for the API appears to have gone AWOL.

That aside though, let me give one example of how I do currently use Sky-Map and how I use it in a way that, from what I've seen of the documentation so far, you can't use Google Sky. In the markup I use for my observing logs I have a way of marking up a star. When I generate XHTML from that XML I simply turn that markup into a URL that takes the reader to Sky-Map.org, to the location of that star, and I don't even need to worry about the location of the star because Sky-Map.org does it for me. I only need use:

http://www.sky-map.org/?object=<star name>

For example:


This is the sort of stuff I need to make Google Sky useful. I don't care how badly it isn't Stellarium, Stellarium does a pretty good job of being Stellarium.

I want it to be like Sky-Map.org, with bells on, and other things I didn't know I needed.


The point of Google Sky

Over on Twitter James of Backyard Sketches says this after trying out Google Sky:

closing the new version of google earth as I have already paid good money for stuff that does it better
I might be reading him wrong but I get the impression that he's not overly impressed by it. But, given the comment, I think he might be missing the point slightly.

Astrogeek says more or less the same thing:
As a tool that introduces some basic astronomy concepts, it’s cool. However, as a tool for use by anything more than the greenest amateur it falls short.
While it's obvious that Google Sky isn't (currently?) up to competing with much of the planetarium software that most amateur astronomers use (Stellarium, Starry Night, XEphem, Cartes du Ciel, etc...) I doubt that's really the point of it. As I see it, the one important thing that Google Sky offers is a common meeting ground for lots of little projects that people have yet to think up.

We've seen this with Google Maps, Google Earth and lots of other Google projects. The thing that Google tends to deliver best is an API or some sort of common platform that others can use to create useful things. From where I'm sat it would appear that this is the aim of Google Sky too.

For example, I can imagine that it would be easy enough for a keen astrophotographer to publish their images as a Google Sky layer in much the same way as I've done with my conventional photography. I can imagine Stuart providing a KML feed that works alongside his radio telescope twitter feeds. I can imagine using it as an alternative way of navigating an index of my observing logs. I imagine that there's people out there, right now, hacking on layers I've not even thought of yet (and probably never would).

In other words, it strikes me that if you're interested in sharing information, if you're interested in building and maintaining a community, if you're interested in trying to contribute to the popularisation of amateur astronomy, it's easy enough to see that Google Sky is potentially a very useful (cross platform) interface in which interesting things can be built.

I can't help but think that quickly looking at it and seeing that it's not as rich as some of the existing planetarium software is missing the point.

Google Sky: It's "Official"

Finally Google have a page up for Google Sky.

The intro video is a bit cheesy:

At least the demo video isn't quite so bad:

Google Sky: A new star cluster is found

I've had another quick play with Google Sky and just noticed something slightly amusing.

Back in January this year, while following a friend's lead, I added a Google Earth feed to my gallery of photographs. It's nothing that clever, it simply adds a little icon to places I've taken photographs at and you can click through to see each album.

I've got that feed enabled in my copy of Google Earth.

So, there I am, scanning around the sky, seeing what there is to see inside Google Sky itself, and I notice lots of little white dots. Not stars, but tiny little while icons, different from the coloured ones I'd noticed earlier on. I click on one and it splits apart into a handful of little white icons (the usual thing that Google Earth does if multiple items exist in the same place).

So I zoom in, and suddenly I realise what it is I'm seeing:

It seems that the feed for my photographs is still live when in sky mode. It's not obvious to me if this is a bug with my feed, or a bug with Google Earth/Sky. What I do know is that if I turn on the feed from my Panoramio photographs (to use a different example) I see the same effect (although I get thumbnails from there, not my own icon, obviously).

Google Sky: First 5mins

Given that I still couldn't see any mention of Google Sky on the Google Earth website I decided to update my copy of Google Earth anyway and see if the facility was in there. It was:

A quick click on the button and, instead of looking at the Earth, I'm looking at the sky, with all the obvious constellations and asterisms marked.

The sky is littered with various dots of different colours (red for Messier, Blue for NGC, blueish swirl things for Hubblesite), when you click on them you get the usual Google Earth pop-up bubble thing with information about an object at that location.

As you'd also expect: pick a DSO, zoom in, and Google Earth downloads nice pretty pictures for that item.

Well, that's it for the first 5min play. It's pretty much what I expected it to be. I can't imagine that I'll be dropping my use of Starry Night for this any time soon, but I can imagine that this will be useful for other purposes. The first thing I want to look at is what's required for a KML file that can be used in Sky mode — I can imagine using this for a few things (and I bet Stuart will be looking into that pretty soon too).

Google Sky

By the looks of things a Google tool some of us have been waiting for for some time is now available (or, rather, will be later today). I first saw this about ½ hour ago on the BBC TV news. There's also an article on the BBC website:

The constellations of Andromeda, Hydra and Vulpecula are now just a mouse click away for amateur star-gazers, following the launch of Google Sky.

The tool is an add-on to Google Earth, a program that allows users to search a 3D rendition of our planet's surface.

Sky will allow astronomers a chance to glide through images of more than one million stars and 200 million galaxies.
I've been over to the Google Earth site and can't find any evidence of it at all. I'm sure we were told a URL in the interview I saw with Ed Parsons but the URL, as I recall it, doesn't work. Then again I think he said something about Google Sky being released "later today". So I'm guessing that we're supposed to wait for the US to wake up first?

Doubtless the "heavyweight" astronomy bloggers (you know who you are ;-)) will be along soon to write more about it (checking my RSS feeds at the moment, nobody I follow has given it a mention so far) but, when I finally figure out what and where, I'll probably chime in too.


ROG Blog

Thanks to Stuart I see that ROG now has a blog. That's an instant add to my RSS reader of choice.


Brian May: Astrologer

Ahh, the good old Daily Mail, you can always rely on them to get a story totally wrong. From this story:

Guitarist Brian May was always known as one of the most famous stars of rock, which probably explains why the music legend has now taken up studying astrology.

Brian May, the lead guitarist from the rock group Queen, is gearing up to study an astrology PhD.
In case you've not got it right away, read it again, carefully.

Yes, the good old astronomy/astrology mix-up. Of course, this being the Daily Mail, they wouldn't see why this is a problem.

Best part is, even if they'd said "astronomy" instead of "astrology", they'd still have the story wrong. Far from "gearing up to study" the subject, he's (if I recall correctly) just recently finished and submitted his thesis and will be defending it towards the end of the month.


Space Signpost

Via this thread on the SPA's BB:

Hi, I’m writing from a small market research firm in Bath. We’ve been commissioned by the Open University to conduct market research into the commercial potential for an educational astronomy-related product that’s under development.

The product is called ‘Space Signpost’, and it’s a desktop gadget that will physically turn and point to the exact location of any astronomical body. Here’s a link to the Space Signpost web site, which shows some of the educational prototypes to date; I can also post a sketch of some of the thinking for potential design of the commercial product, which is a much smaller desktop version, with specific features as yet undetermined.
There's not that much information about it at the moment, although it's an interesting idea if the large-scale versions are anything to go by. I can imagine that it might be a useful prop of you're the sort of person who gives tours of the night sky to groups of people, but I'm struggling to think of a personal use (other than the gadget-value anyway).

My response to the questions can be found here.


All seems well down at the Zoo

I just received a copy of the first ever Galaxy Zoo newsletter. It opens with this:

To date, unbelievably, 80,000 of you have viewed and classified more than 10 million images of galaxies. Our initial target of having each galaxy (there are a million in our initial sample from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey) viewed once is more than done, but we still need your help. Our NEW target is to have each and every galaxy classified by 20 separate users.
All that and, what, they've been running live for less than a month?



Hug the Bad Astronomer

Go on, you know you want to.