Google Sky, Slooh bringing users live astronomy

Partnership will allow fans of Google's popular sky map to see near-real-time imagery of the sky, taken by users of Slooh's Internet-based observatory telescopes.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
A view of a new Google Sky layer, which shows the location on a sky map of dozens of user-created photographs of deep-space objects.

Deep-space stargazing, meet crowdsourcing.

For some time now, Google Sky has enabled users to view a wide range of imagery from high-level sources like the Hubble Telescope, NASA satellites, and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. But the service has never provided a method for users to view community-created imagery, or to participate in the viewing of live events like eclipses.

Until now.

On Friday, Google announced a partnership with Slooh, a New York company that offers the public Internet-based access to a global network of observatories, and a diverse and constantly growing collection of telescopic viewing and photography "missions."

Google Earth tackles the universe (photos)

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Under the terms of the partnership, Slooh will now provide data that will allow anyone using Google Sky to view a new map layer showing thousands of user-taken photographs of deep space, as well as to access imagery from observatories of eclipses and other significant celestial events.

"What [Google Sky] doesn't have is images from people, 'Hey I took this image,' or images taken recently, or images taken right now, or last week, and...Slooh is all of those things," said Noel Gorelick, the technology lead for Sky in Google Earth, the service's official name. "There's a whole group of enthusiasts on [Slooh] who follow comets [and who take] a whole group of images, and that's very attractive to us. We like people wanting to use the tool to get better access to something they already have."

Since its founding in 2003, Slooh has built a community of 50,000 members, some who pay for premium access, and some who access its free services. And over that time, those members have used the telescopes in its observatories in Chile, Australia, and the Canary Islands to take more than 1.4 million photographs of the sky.

At the heart of Slooh's service are so-called "missions," which are essentially pre-determined viewings of specific features of deep space, be they comets, nebulae, galaxies, or the like. The site always has a list of upcoming missions--for example, as of this writing the next few missions will be viewings of Globular Cluster M2, Globular Cluster M15, the Triangulum Galaxy (M33), and the Coccon Nebula (IC 5146).

Anyone can take part in any of those missions, and anyone can use Slooh's interface to take and share photographs based on what the telescopes are showing during the missions. Those using the free version of the service can only access the first four photos they take, while those who pay get unlimited access.

Paying members can also reserve time to direct one of the telescopes to look at a spot in the sky of their choosing--either from a pre-selected list of targets, or by choosing from astronomy catalogs, or by entering coordinates that they wish to focus on. And anyone can participate in missions that are community-directed, all of which are listed on the site's roster of upcoming events.

In addition, many of the missions are accompanied by audio narration from experts, most prominently Bob Berman of Astronomy magazine.

"Slooh" is a play on the phrase to "slew a telescope," meaning to control, or change, its direction, said Patrick Paolucci, Slooh's executive vice president for sales and marketing.

Paolucci explained that Slooh is targeting both kids and adults with different membership packages. Children can buy $10 packs of trading cards at Radio Shack or Toys 'R Us that allow them to direct nine missions, while adults can pay annual or monthly fees for similar controls.

Almost all images are available for viewing within five minutes, Paolucci said.

Only photos taken by paying members will be included in the data that is sent to Google Sky.

Users of Google's service will be able to see maps of the sky that have little Slooh logos sprinkled throughout the constellations. Each instance of the logo indicates a user-taken photograph, and in each case, clicking on it brings up a window with a label for what is being shown, along with thumbnails for the available images of that element.

A partnership between Google and Slooh will allow Google Sky users to see live astronomy photographs. Slooh/Google

One feature that has Gorelick excited is the potential for Google Sky users to take part in viewings of important live space events, like the appearances of comets, or lunar and solar eclipses. In those cases, Slooh's telescopes will feed near-real-time data to Google's servers, allowing large numbers of people to watch as the event develops. As with missions on Slooh's site, those taking place live on Google Sky will also feature audio from astronomy experts like Berman.

The first of these will be a lunar eclipse on December 21, and Paolucci said he expects Google to promote them when they happen.

Replacing the home telescope
To Michael Paolucci, Slooh's chairman and founder--and Pat Paolucci's brother--Slooh's service is about picking up where the home telescope leaves off. He said that many people buy such equipment expecting to take them home and be able to see the sky in exquisite detail.

But the reality, Michael said, is that instead of seeing nebulae or galaxies, people usually can't pick out objects beyond our own solar system with their telescopes with just the naked eye.

And that's where Slooh's patented instant imaging technology comes into play, he said, since its observatory-quality telescopes are designed to allow users to capture such images.

For Google, partnering with Slooh is mainly about opening up new possibilities to Google Sky users, said Gorelick. He hopes that people enjoy using the new layer, and figure out things to do with it that no one previously envisioned. "It would be awesome if someone discovered a new asteroid using these images through Google Sky," Gorelick said.

Gorelick said that there are other Internet-based telescope services that compete with Slooh, but which are geared mainly toward educational institutions. Gorelick said that he preferred working with Slooh because, although it also has plenty of users in schools, it is geared mainly toward individuals.

For the Paolucci brothers, teaming up with Google helped Slooh solve one major issue it didn't on its own have the resources for: serving live imagery of events to large numbers of people. Google's infrastructure, on the other hand, can easily handle things like that.

"Those loads are very easy for us to accommodate," said Gorelick. "So I look forward to an event with a million people looking at an eclipse in Google Sky. I think that would be fantastic."